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Study: Aging prison population is costly
State officials hope sentencing reform lessens taxpayers burden
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By the numbers

Georgia prison population

55,000: Total inmates

6,905: Serving life sentences with the possibility of parole

764: Serving life without parole

94: Sentenced to death

Georgia has passed three criminal justice reform laws in two years, with sentencing getting a good deal of scrutiny. However, advocacy groups say the changes may not be enough to stem the tide of aging inmates serving lengthy sentences.

The state prison population over age 50 increased from 10 percent of all inmates in 1990 to 16 percent in 2011, according to Department of Corrections statistics.

“I think there’s going to be a tremendous burden on the taxpayers in the coming years,” said attorney Larry Korn with the Atlanta-based Georgia Justice Project. “As this prison population grows and gets older — because there’s nobody getting out — what can we pay for in terms of geriatric care?”

In Georgia, incarcerated people age 65 or older had an average yearly medical cost of $8,565, compared with the average of $961 for younger inmates, according to a 2012 Human Rights Watch study on aging in prisons.

Of the 55,000-plus people incarcerated in Georgia, 6,905 inmates are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole, 764 are serving life without parole and 94 are sentenced to death.

As the state’s prison budget soared past $1 billion annually in recent years, the tab for incarceration has grabbed the attention of lawmakers.

In 2011 Gov. Nathan Deal created a criminal justice reform council, whose recommendations to address costs have been partially adopted.

House Bill 1176, signed into law in May 2012, created more discerning guidelines for penalties. The threshold for felony shoplifting was increased from $300 to $500 and for most other theft crimes to $1,500; burglary and forgery offenses are now punishable on a sliding scale weighing the severity of the crime; and penalties for drug possession in small amounts are less severe.

Georgia’s prison population, which doubled in the past two decades, is a reflection of the “tough on crime” mentality that swept the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s, experts say.

In 1994, then-Gov. Zell Miller approved sentencing revisions of 10 years with no parole for committing one of the “seven deadly sins,” which included rape, armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy and aggravated sexual battery. A second conviction mandated a life sentence without parole.

According to a Sept. 2013 study released by The Sentencing Project, Georgia has the fourth highest percentage of inmates sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for non-homicides, 38.7 percent.

Georgia is also one of five states where more than 10 percent of all life-sentenced prisoners were under age 18 at the time of their offense, joining Idaho, Nevada, Wisconsin and Maryland, the report states.

A life sentence went from being parole-eligible after seven years to 15 years in 1995. That number was increased again in 2006 to 30 years.

Public Defender Brad Morris, who heads the Northeastern Judicial Circuit in Gainesville, said mandatory minimum sentences have driven a much higher percentage of cases to guilty pleas, with only about 2 percent seeing a jury, and at a cost.
“When you put someone in prison for 25 or 30 years, it’s going to cost several million dollars, in all likelihood, and a lot time for arguably not terribly serious offensives,” he said. “So there’s both a huge monetary part to it and more importantly there’s a genuine sense of unfairness.”

Mandatory minimums have been addressed by the legislature. HB349, signed in April 2013, allows options in some circumstances where judges can bypass mandatory minimum guidelines for certain types of crimes, mostly drug-related.

Korn said in the face of political pressure, reforms have been encouraging.

“It’s a start, it’s a process, and reforms from last session are beginning to take hold, and there is alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenses,” he said. “Judges are starting to understand it’s necessary and even some prosecutors are starting to understand it’s necessary — but there is a constituency to please.”

“It’s an old cliche that nobody ever lost an election because they were tough on crime.”

Hall County’s drug court program, created in 2000 under the direction of Superior Court Judge John Girardeau, was one of the earliest alternative sentencing programs in the state. Other jurisdictions have followed suit.

Judge Jason Deal, who runs the program now, cites low recidivism for its participants, and said that while drug court isn’t foolproof, it’s “the best thing we have going.”

The state looks poised to focus on reducing recidivism; statistics show about one-third of inmates end up back in prison.

Deal signaled his support for re-entry initiatives when he created the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry in June, to help inmates out of prison get back on track with employment, housing and basic life skills.

“Reducing recidivism is huge initiative at the Justice Project,” Korn said. “When getting people’s lives back on track, you have give them an alternative that isn’t criminal.”