Life in Georgia: Arrivals versus departures
The number of new prison arrivals sentenced to life in prison during the past four years in Georgia, compared with the number of “lifers” paroled after serving a significant period of time behind bars.
New arrivals / paroled
2005: 223 / 188
2006: 243 / 144
2007: 214 / 154
2008: 216 / 200
Source: Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles
The number of people serving sentences of life in prison has grown dramatically in Georgia and across the nation in recent years, creating a huge fiscal impact on states, according to a new report from a prisoner advocacy group.
And while many people convicted of violent crimes should be kept locked up to protect communities, other life sentences brought on by two- and three-strike mandatory minimum policies have undermined the chances of inmates to rehabilitate, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project.
“It’s a real statement on what we think about the potential for reform of an individual,” said Ashley Nellis, co-author of “No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America.”
Nellis said the Sentencing Project views life sentences for repeat offenders as “a real waste of human potential. Rehabilitation can work for many offenders, but there seems to be an abandonment of this idea and prisons have become warehouses for these folks.”
One in every 11 prisoners in this country — about 140,000 people — are serving life sentences. In Georgia, there are 7,193 people serving life in prison, a 67 percent increase since 1994. In that same time span, Georgia’s total inmate population of more than 60,000 grew by about 30 percent, according to state Department of Corrections data.
Georgia’s corrections budget has grown from about $650 million in 1994 to $1.15 billion in fiscal year 2008.
The Sentencing Project’s researchers believe a major financial burden on state prison systems comes from feeding, sheltering and clothing “lifers” at a cost of anywhere from $35,000 to $78,000 a year. The group estimates that it would cost $1 million to imprison a person for 40 years, from age 30 to age 70.
“As they age, they become a lot more expensive and require a lot more medical care,” Nellis said.
The growth in number of life sentences has made a “huge financial impact that wasn’t considered during the ‘tough on crime’ years,” Nellis said. “States are finding they simply can’t afford these tough-on-crime approaches.”
In Georgia, life in prison is the mandatory minimum sentence for a murder conviction, with parole eligibility in 30 years. Prior to 2007, those convicted of murder in Georgia were eligible for parole after 14 years. Life in prison also can be given to those convicted of other charges as repeat offenders, including rape, kidnapping and armed robbery.
The report suggests that in many states, parole is a “highly politicized process” with political appointees making the decisions.
“Parole for persons serving a life sentence has become a political liability, even if all indicators suggest to an independent review board that the individual is suitable to be released,” according to the report.
The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles considered 668 “lifers” for parole in fiscal year 2008, and granted parole for 200, just under 30 percent. In the previous three years, the board granted parole for 20 percent, 17 percent and 27 percent of those serving life sentences who came up for parole, according to the agency’s statistics.
Pardons and Parole spokeswoman Sheree Moore said the board members, who are appointed by the governor in staggered seven-year terms, are not influenced by politics.
“Public safety is their No. 1 priority,” she said. “The parole board doesn’t want to release anyone who may be a danger to others.”
The average lifer who is granted parole served 22 years in prison, Moore said. Before granting parole, the board members consider the nature of the crime, how much time has been served and what rehabilitative programs the inmates have completed.
Those lifers who are paroled must have an approved, secure residence to go to when they are released, Moore said.
Like the prison population as a whole, there is a racial disparity in the people serving life sentences. Georgia, with a population that is 30 percent African-American, has a prison population that is 62 percent black. Among those serving life in prison in Georgia, 70.9 percent are black, the fourth-highest racial disparity in the nation. Only Maryland, Mississippi and Louisiana have a higher percentage of blacks serving life sentences.
“It’s certainly a case of being disproportionate to the Georgia population, and it’s worthy of more study,” Nellis said.
According to Georgia Department of Corrections data, there are 137 people convicted in Hall County who are serving life sentences, including 14 who are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole. Of Hall County’s lifers, 49 are serving life for an offense other than murder.
Nellis said habitual violator laws that allowed life sentences outside of murder convictions “caught up people who really didn’t need to be in the system for the rest of their lives.”
Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said if the number of life sentences have increased in the “right cases,” then “the people are well served by their law enforcement and prosecution agencies, and the cost is both justified and necessary.”