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Criminal justice council recommends changes to probation
BC-GA-XGR--Georgia Legislature-ref

State officials are recommending changes to help reduce what they say is the highest rate of felons on probation in the country.

In a report submitted to Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday, the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform said doing so would have several positive results, including reducing heavy caseloads for probation officers and allowing the officers to focus more on higher-risk offenders.

Currently, the council’s report noted, probation is widely employed in Georgia as a sentence, either in lieu of or combined with imprisonment. Georgia also imposes relatively long felony probation sentences, the report says.

The report notes positive results of policies implemented in previous years, including a decrease in the prison population from 54,895 in July 2012 to 52,962 at the end of last year. It also highlights a change in the type of inmates who are in prison, with the most serious offenders now making up 67 percent of the state’s inmates, versus 58 percent at the start of 2009.

Accountability courts, which numbered 139 across the state at the beginning of this year, have seen a 147 percent increase in new participants from 2013 to 2016, the report says.

“In implementing these common sense reforms, we are taking steps to preserve families, address the underlying issues associated with incarceration and provide offenders with meaningful second chances,” Deal said.

Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles, who started in law enforcement in Gainesville, lauded the work being done in the accountability courts.

“People that have ventured into the criminal side of it are now getting the rehabilitation that they need so that there are really meaningful second chances,” Niles said.

The council’s recommendations include using probation, programming and treatment to reduce recidivism for first-time nonviolent offenders convicted of drug or property crimes; offering to shorten probation sentences as an incentive for good behavior; and focusing more supervision The report also outlines some changes that can help offenders succeed in society once they leave prison, including helping them get driver’s licenses or state IDs and expanding a program that helps with housing after prison.

earlier in an offender’s probation term.

The report says the Department of Community Supervision has already begun to move from reactive to proactive probation enforcement.

According to the report’s findings, the yearly juvenile commitments to the Department of Juvenile Justice have decreased by 46 percent since 2013.

Niles credited the decrease to the community groups providing help in behavioral cases before juvenile offenders end up in the criminal justice arena.

“Those kids are being able to be treated before they cross the threshold of the regional youth detention centers. They’re getting the help in the community before they cross our thresholds,” Niles said.

The council also makes recommendations for the parole system, including providing alternatives to incarceration if parole is revoked and having the State Board of Pardons and Paroles consider commuting the sentence of a parolee serving a split sentence for a nonviolent drug or property crime who has successfully completed a year of supervision.

For the juvenile justice system, the council recommends steps to deal with juvenile offenders who are found incompetent to stand trial but who are deemed public-safety risks. It also suggests encouraging parental accountability, if appropriate, for children who are repeat offenders.

In the near future, Niles said there will be a push for transitional centers helping both juvenile and adult offenders as they are looking to re-enter society.

The governor’s office said in a news release that many of the council’s recommendations are already included in proposed legislation submitted to the General Assembly for consideration.

The effort for comprehensive criminal justice reform in Georgia began with a bill in 2011 that created the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians and charged it with looking into ways to reduce the growth of the prison population, address increasing costs, hold offenders accountable and improve public safety.

When the criminal justice reform effort began, the state’s prison population was expected to top 60,000 by the end of 2016, at an additional cost of $264 million, Deal said in a news release. Instead, he said, the reforms have saved millions and reinvested more than $47 million back into the system.