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Panel seeks change to Ga. justice system
Study: Taxpayers paying price for crowded prisons
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A clogged prison system and mounting costs to maintain Georgia's criminal justice system are prompting state lawmakers to consider several changes, among them to alter offender sentences.

A criminal justice commission outlined its recommendations in a recent report, with its plans to be proposed in the 2012 legislative session.

The move has drawn considerable support from several politicians and judges including Gov. Nathan Deal and his son, Jason Deal, a superior court judge for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit.

"We've got to find some ways to make changes to make financial sense while keeping the community safe," said Jason Deal, who heads an alternative sentencing program for drug offenders in Hall County.

Those costs are becoming a financial burden for state taxpayers who shell out more than $1 billion annually on corrections while the recidivism rate has remained stagnant at 30 percent over the past decade.

If nothing is done to change sentencing regulations, those costs are expected to increase by another $264 million by 2016, with an additional 60,000 state inmates.

Most inmates in state prisons are drug and property offenders. In fact, nearly 60 percent of them are booked on such charges, and many are labeled as lower-risk offenders.

"We must address the portion of the prison population that is in prison for drug-related offenses and try to get them treatment outside of the prison system," said Judge Todd Markle, who serves on the superior court bench in Fulton County and was appointed as chairman for the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians.

In 2010, 5,000 prisoners deemed as lower risk were locked up for the first time. Each year, more than 3,200 offenders are imprisoned on drug possession convictions.

The council believes providing more assistance and rehabilitation programs outside of prison is the solution to helping those offenders and saving millions of dollars.

"There are a lot of programs. We know a lot more now than we did 20 years ago about things that work to deal with drug addictions and things of that nature," Markle said.

Some judges believe that by giving judges and other court officials more sentencing flexibility, the state could save money and decrease the number of low-risk offenders in the prison system.

"The majority of cases that are closed are closed by negotiation, so a lot of the sentencing schemes that don't allow discretion not only tie the hands of judges, but also tie the hands of prosecutors," Judge Deal said.
"The (district attorney) and the judge are elected for a reason. To allow them some discretion is a good thing."

The crowded state prison system wasn't the council's only concern. It also scrutinized the state's ability to effectively supervise probationers and parolees.

That population has seen significant growth as well.

Since 2000, the state's felony probation population has increased by 22 percent to 156,000. The parole population has increased 9 percent to 22,000.

While the council believes programs to identify and supervise high-risk offenders are effective, it's concerned about a lack of resources to properly supervise them.

The council suggested eliminating dual supervision of offenders. Currently, some offenders are supervised by both probation and parole officers at the same time, which the council says wastes resources.

By reducing prison population, the state could save millions that could go toward funding programs to adequately supervise offenders and create programs to ensure they don't return to the penal system. Those proposals could require a large investment to get started, but proponents believe it will pay off in the long run.

Those rising populations aren't a result of bad policing, Markle said.

"I think the law enforcement is doing their jobs and they're doing it well," he said.

He believes the problem began in the mid-1990s when the state built additional prisons and created stricter sentencing guidelines.

"We really have incarcerated a lot of folks that I think we can better address their issues than by just throwing them in a prison cell," Markle said. "We can't keep doing those things without bankrupting the state."

Other added finances could come from increases in minimum fines for various felonies such as theft, burglary and forgery, which have not been updated in nearly 30 years.

The felony theft threshold in the state is $500 and hasn't changed since 1982. The council suggests adjusting that standard for inflation and increasing it to $1,500.

"You're having folks who are being charged with felonies when really it's a fairly trivial amount just by some arbitrary number. We were really just trying to address that and there is significant impact on the prison population," Markle said.

As a result of increasing those minimums, Markle said it could adjust for inflation and deter people from committing those crimes.

Some charges currently listed as misdemeanors are being looked at as well. Although it's rare a speeding conviction will result in jail time, those offenders still have the right to a court-appointed attorney.

"There are many misdemeanor driving offenses now that probably could be made noncriminal that could save the state money and still be a deterrent for people that would violate the driving laws," Judge Deal said.

He recommends changing such offenses to civil offenses where there is no possibility of jail time, and where the state isn't required to provide an attorney.

By the start of the legislative session in January, lawmakers are expected to have prepared at least an initial draft of proposals. More changes could then be added or tweaked over years.

Markle said hearings are also expected in mid-December.