In, Georgia, 1 in 13 adults is under some form of correctional control: either on probation or parole, or behind bars.i This is the highest rate in the nation – the national average is 1 in 31.ii About 1 in 70 Georgia adults are behind bars. Georgia spends more than $1 billion per year on its prison system that houses approximately 53,000 inmates.iii Corrections costs have grown five-fold since 1985.iv Longer sentences have driven Georgia’s prison growth. For instance, the average inmate released in 2009 on a drug possession charge spent 21 months locked up, compared with 10 months in 1990.v
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) says his colleagues need to take a closer look at the cost-effectiveness of their programs, stating: “I don’t think we ought to let public safety depend on getting a bargain basement price, but I think we do have to be conscious of the cost of incarceration.” He added, “I think the dialogue has already started.”
Ralston notes that he is a strong supporter of Georgia’s drug courts, an accountability and treatment approach for substance abuse offenders overseen by a judge.vi He said that cops and prosecutors tell him Georgia needs more discretion in the courtroom and more alternatives to prison.vii
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich urged Georgia policymakers to make improvements in the state’s corrections system in a March 2010 op-ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution co-authored with former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, stating in part:
“If two-thirds of public school students dropped out, or two-thirds of all bridges built collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it? The people of Georgia would never stand for that kind of failure. But that is exactly what is happening all across the U.S. in our prison systems. Last year, some 20,000 people were released from Georgia’s prisons to re-enter our communities. If trends of the past decade continue, two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years. That failure rate is a clear and present threat to public safety. Not only is this revolving door a threat to public safety, but it results in an increasing burden on each and every taxpayer.”viii
In 2012, Georgia tackled these challenges by passing a major reform package. The package prioritizes Georgia’s limited prison space for the most serious offenders by creating a new system of graduated sanctions for burglary, forgery, theft, and simple drug possession. Low-level, first time offenders are punished using community supervision alternatives, and prison space is reserved for more serious and habitual offenders. The reform package also improved probation by, among other things, strengthening the state’s drug treatment programs, accountability courts, and electronic monitoring. The package also improves data collection so that the state may better measure the performance of the criminal justice system. The bill, HB 1176, passed both chambers unanimously (162-0 in the House, 51-0 in the Senate), and was signed into law by Governor Nathan Deal on May 2, 2012.
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i Carrie Teegardin and Bill Rankin, “A Billion Dollar Burden or Justice,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 23 Sept. 2010.
viii Newt Gingrich and Mark Earley, “Cutting Recidivism Saves Money and Lives,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 24 Mar. 2010.