Among the few bright spots during the last session of the Georgia General Assembly was the creating of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, which was tasked with finding creative ways to help the state save some money while taking a different approach on crime by focusing less on incarceration and more on rehabilitation. The council released their report and findings last week, notes Jim Galloway:
For most incumbent lawmakers in Georgia, whether Democratic or Republican, crime has always been a topic that required the gas pedal — never the brakes. Slamming jail cell doors makes for great TV ads.
Zell Miller showed us how it was done. In a 1994 drive for re-election as governor, he pushed through Georgia’s tough “two-strikes-and-you’re-out” law to lock away repeat violent offenders. “It was more expensive to leave those felons on the streets,” Miller said years later. “I think everybody deserves a second chance, but that’s all they deserve.”
Yet the Great Recession has caused us to put a price tag on even our most favorite reflexes. At the cost of more than $1 billion per year, one of every 70 adults in Georgia is now under some sort of state supervision — a higher rate than all but three other states. The federal average is one in 100.
“Yet despite this growth,” the report said, “Georgia taxpayers haven’t received a better public safety return on their corrections dollars. The recidivism rate has remained unchanged at nearly 30 percent throughout the past decade.”
Republicans who control the state Capitol are nervous about the coming change in direction. Reactions from Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston have been encouraging, but cautious.
Over at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s blog, Mike Klein parsed through the report and gives us a summary the recommendations, which includes expanding accountability courts, expanding access to rehabilitation and treatment centers, funding community corrections agencies, and expanding an existing program that gives offenders incentives for working or risk reduction. Texas has implemented similar criminal justice reforms and saved taxpayers billions.
Galloway points out that the report has received raved reviews from Right on Crime, an initiative pushed by several prominent conservatives. But he also notes that the legislature, which includes some members that play up that “tough on crime” image, may take baby steps in implementing the recommendations of the report. While anything would be an improvement over the status quo, legislators need to do more than give this report a passing glance. Bold steps are required to save taxpayers money.