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Many lament loss of diversion center
Prison chief talks of new mission
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Georgia’s prison chief said Thursday that a 100-bed diversion center scheduled for closure Oct. 1 will be converted into a center where felony probationers under heavy supervision will be required to report daily.

"What are now 75-100-bed centers for adult felons will evolve to become combined probation offices and day report centers," Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner James Donald said in an statement released late Thursday.

Meanwhile, news of plans to close the facility on Aviation Boulevard was lamented by some local employers, prosecutors and state policymakers.

"When I was a store manager, I hired as many people as I could from there," said Greg Scott, operations manager for Gainesville’s local Burger King franchise. "They wanted to go out and work, they had to be at work, and they did a pretty good job."

Said Kim London, an assistant store manager for Long John Silver’s, which hired several diversion center inmates, "They were always here on time. Closing (the center) is not going to help them pay their dues. I think it will just stock up the prisons sooner."

The diversion center, located on Aviation Boulevard, houses nonviolent, low-risk state prisoners in a work-release environment, allowing them to leave during the day to work jobs and come back at night to sleep under guarded supervision. Many prisoners also worked toward getting their General Equivelancy Diplomas and learned pointers in job-seeking and personal finance while at the center. Typical sentences ranged from 60 to 120 days.

This week Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner James Donald, under a mandate to cut the state prison budget by as much as $40 million, announced that the Gainesville Diversion Center and similar facilities in Rome and Waycross would be shut down by Oct. 1.

The announcement was not welcomed by Gainesville’s local legislative delegation, whose members said they had no advance warning.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said he wants to have a meeting with Donald and Gov. Sonny Perdue in an attempt to prevent the planned closing.

At least one state Board of Corrections member is also against shutting down the diversion centers.

"I am totally against it," said Tommy Rouse, a Georgia Board of Corrections member who has a diversion center in Waycross named after him. "It gives the people who mess up but don’t need to go to prison a chance to be in a place where they can work, pay taxes, and pay part of their room and board. There are numerous programs that they have there that they would not get in a regular prison environment."

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said he was disappointed in the decision to close the Gainesville Diversion Center. The closing means prosecutors and judges will have fewer sentencing options available to them in cases involving nonviolent felony offenders who need some level of incarceration, Darragh said.

"For years, alternative sentencing options have been encouraged, and this (closing) does remove a good one," Darragh said. "It provided consequences for the offender while at the same time giving them educational opportunities and a chance to work toward being productive citizens."

Darragh added that in some cases, "intensive supervised probation" may not be the best option when choosing between probation and prison time.

But heavily supervised probation is essentially the new mission for the facility as outlined in a news release e-mailed by Donald’s office late Thursday.

Donald said that offenders supervised under the Day Report Center model will be required to work and pay fees, fines and restitution. The difference, aside from the offenders not sleeping at the facility, will be requirements that they participate in addiction treatment and vocational education, Donald said.

A "day report" center would cost taxpayers $10 per day per offender, compared with $40 to $80 per day in diversion centers and other correctional facilities, according to the commissioner.

Rouse said he didn’t blame Donald for the diversion center closings.

"I know he’s got his back against the wall to cut the budget," Rouse said. "He cuts what he feels like is the best thing to cut. But I don’t necessarily agree with him cutting the centers."

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