Criminal Sentencing Reform in Georgia has become National Model
This article by Right on Crime Signatories, Newt Gingrich and Kelly McCutchen, originally appeared in The Augusta Chronicle, November 18th, 2017.
Texas is celebrating 10 successful years of reform that has led to the lowest crime rates since 1967 and the lowest rate of incarceration in a generation.
Meanwhile, the state of Georgia is following in the Lone Star State’s footsteps by increasing public safety and reforming the criminal justice system.
This is especially important to note because the FBI reported last month that while the national crime rate is down, violent crime has increased slightly for two years in a row, due in large part to an increase in homicides in cities such as Chicago and Baltimore.
In 2012, Gov. Nathan Deal recognized the breakthroughs Texas was making and began a justice reinvestment plan that tackled some of the biggest challenges facing Georgia’s criminal justice system.
Chief among these challenges was that Georgia sent many low-risk offenders to prison for lengthy sentences. For too long, the assumption was that the most appropriate form of punishment was long-term incarceration.
However, research shows that low-risk, nonviolent offenders who serve long sentences tend to continue to commit crimes after being released.
Once Georgia’s sentencing challenge was identified, the state was able to restructure sentences for property and drug offenses. Lawmakers came up with alternatives that actually held offenders accountable – rather than simply punishing them – and reduced the likelihood that they would reoffend. Alternatives included substance abuse treatment and accountability courts, both of which more effectively address the causes of many offenders’ behavior.
This low-level sentencing change allowed the state to focus on imprisoning serious offenders, which resulted in fewer victims of crime, increased safety outcomes and lowered costs.
Georgia also worked to improve the juvenile justice system, which was exceedingly expensive and not as effective as it could be. The state began to implement programs to help rehabilitate juvenile offenders outside of a detention setting. At the same time, the state shifted its focus toward helping juvenile offenders who had served time to return to society as productive citizens. These changes for juvenile offenders have led to today’s vastly improved criminal justice system.
The results speak for themselves:
• Violent and property crime rates have been on a steady decline for over a decade, with property crime and total crime taking an even steeper decline since the reforms, compared to the years prior.
• Parole revocation is down 35 percent from 2007 to 2016, a sign that fewer released offenders are sent back to prison because they violated conditions of their supervision.
• The Georgia corrections system now includes 67 percent violent offenders, up 9 percent since 2009, which illustrates a renewed focus on violent crime over low-level drug crime.
Georgia’s story is an incredible one for many reasons.
First, it disproves the widely held belief that incarcerating more offenders means less crime. The reforms in Texas and Georgia – as well as South Carolina, Mississippi and other states – show alternatives can be more effective.
Second, it shows that being “tough on crime” by incarcerating offenders for long sentences – and for every offense, large or small – is more about playing politics than getting results. The research tells us that long sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenders can result in worse public safety outcomes. Housing lower-risk people with more dangerous offenders makes them more dangerous themselves. In this way, harsh sentences make our streets less safe.
These successes should drive our public policy discussions about crime and safety. We are disturbed by the FBI report on violent crime. Crime, particularly violent crime, is a complex issue that requires careful analysis to identify specific causes and remedies at the local level. Georgia has already been successful in doing that with nonviolent crimes. It will take a community-wide effort to determine the best ways to keep violent crime at bay.
Those of us on the side of reform vow to work with policymakers, political leaders, and law enforcement to continue on the path that has led to years of low crime rates. This nation cannot backslide into antiquated, tired and misinformed narratives for the sake of political capital and convenience.
Leaders at the national level are already writing how they hope their states – and the nation – will someday follow Georgia’s example and outcomes. Georgians can be proud that the bold actions in our state have become a national model.
Newt Gingrich is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Kelly McCutchen is president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. They are signatories to the Right on Crime Statement of Principles.