It may be too soon to tout a lowered re-offending rate or a quantifiable dollar amount saved to taxpayers, but a reverberation of statewide criminal justice reform is being noted by one local entity: the Hall County Correctional Institute.
Warden Walt Davis said he’s seen dramatic shifts in the makeup of populations at correctional institutes due to sentencing guidelines affecting lower-level offenders.
“Twenty four to 36 months later, we are really now beginning to see the impact of those reform efforts on the system,” he said.
Signed by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2012, the legislation created more tiered sentencing guidelines, discerning between levels of punishment based on the severity for nonviolent crimes, including burglary, fraud and drug offenses.
In July 2012, almost 10,000 Georgians were incarcerated on first-time, nonviolent offenses, according to Department of Corrections statistics. In March 2014, that number was down to 7,783.
Overall, a higher percentage of new inmates are classified in the highest security risk category. The approximately 3,000 fewer inmates in the state system overall are almost entirely accounted for by the decline in first-time nonviolent offenders being incarcerated.
“The focus on criminal justice reform as I understood it at the time was to utilize a lot of the alternatives such as accountability courts (like those aimed to help with drug and mental health problems) that we have in Hall County, and divert some of these ‘low’ level offenders away from the prison and better utilize the resources of the prison system to house violent offenders,” Davis said.
Davis became warden of the institute in February 2013. Prior to that, he was director of the clemency division for the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, and he has been acquainted with statewide reform efforts from their outset.
“The whole purpose in that was to utilize the hard beds in the prison system for the violent offenders. It’s all about effective and efficient use of tax dollars,” Davis said. “The effect of that is, and I speak from a county warden’s perspective — ultimately what’s going to happen is there’s going to be a diminished number of inmates available for medium and minimum security facilities, and that requires county wardens to become smarter about managing our work details.”
There are 23 county prisons that seek the approximately 5,000 medium- and minimum-security inmates in the system. And that population is dropping, Davis said.
Fewer low-level offenders in the state system could mean closure of county correctional institutes, Davis said, although a new re-entry program in Hall guarantees a steady stream of low-level offenders.
“That wasn’t my motivation for the REACT program. My motivation was obviously bringing Hall and Dawson residents back here and providing them with a hand up to re-integrate into society,” Davis said.
Hall County’s pilot Re-entry Accountability Court Transition program received its first nine participants in early March. Inmates will continue to be periodically transferred for entry into the education, employment and mental/substance abuse counseling program until there are about 50 participants, Davis said.
The program represents a special exemption in policy by the Department of Corrections, allowing offenders to serve the remainder of sentences in their county of residence. It was a key accommodation for the program, which seeks to connect inmates to local resources and a steady job prior to being released from state custody.
“A beneficial byproduct of that is because we are channeling those Hall and Dawson residents back to this area from the prison system, we will have a steady stream of inmates coming back,” Davis said. “We will have in some ways ensured that we will have an adequate pool of inmates for our work details, and to sustain the operations of the Hall County C.I.”
More counties are already planning their own re-entry programs, he said. Two more are gearing up in Coweta and Floyd counties.
Even with a regular population provided by the program, Davis said he does anticipate changes.
“The offenders that are going into the prison system are more violent than they were previously. Those violent offenders, if they behave themselves over time, can have their security lowered down to medium,” Davis said. “Ultimately some of the county camps, and Hall County is included, will see an influx of more serious offenders coming to medium security facilities, over time.”
“That’s just a fact of the changing dynamic of the prison system.”