Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal pledged to sign an executive order establishing a permanent Criminal Justice Reform Oversight Council to study the state’s criminal justice system. The move comes on the heels of a report by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform that makes recommendations to lawmakers about methods for reducing the high cost of incarceration for taxpayers.
The report by the Special Council also recommends the new Oversight Council address juvenile justice reform.
“Council members believe that a full examination of the state’s juvenile justice system should be undertaken to develop recommendations for reform,” the report says.
Currently, lawmakers are debating a rewrite of the Georgia Juvenile Code, however it is unclear what role the new Oversight Council might play in the process.
State Representative Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who served on the Special Council, says the Legislature may have to wait on a recommended survey of the juvenile justice system.
“Clearly the governor is putting a lot of emphasis on this effort,” she said. “But I think we will get through this session before we evaluate any of the other recommendations, including juvenile justice.”
The Special Council, made up of 13 lawyers, lawmakers and judges, called for “improving community-based supervision, sanctions and services as well as other practices proven to reduce recidivism, which are essential to improving public safety.”
According to the report, with nearly 56,000 inmates Georgia has one of the largest adult prison populations in the country costing taxpayers more than $1 billion annually, up from $492 million in 1990. Despite this, recidivism rates have remained steady at nearly 30 percent for the last 10 years.
Most of that growth, the report says, comes from “policy decisions about who is being sent to prison and how long they stay.” Drug and property offenders, many of them identified as lower-risk, account for 60 percent of all prison admissions.
In order to reduce the prison population and the cost to taxpayers, the Council recommends an overhaul to sentencing guidelines and the establishment of drug courts and other accountability courts.
Technical support for the Council was provided by the non-profit Pew Center on the States. It is not yet clear if that partnership will continue with the new Oversight Council.
"We don't yet know if we will be providing technical support to the state beyond this year," said Jason Newman, who works with the Public Safety Performance Project, which is part of the Pew Center on the States.
House Bill 265 established the Special Council. In a press release following the release of the report, Gov. Deal said, “We have an amazing opportunity to save lives as well as tax dollars. While we’ll never shrink from our duty to protect the public from dangerous criminals, we know that alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders suffering from addiction or mental illness produces much better results.”
But according to an Associated Press report, despite the governor’s enthusiasm, lawmakers will not consider all of the Council’s recommendations in the upcoming legislative session beginning in January.
Deal is credited with making sentencing reform a priority, the AP story says.
"I actually think we have a governor that is interested, and to be honest that matters,” state Sen. Curt Thompson, a Democrat from Tucker, told the AP. “I'll give him credit for having interest in this.”
The Special Council also recommends a sentencing “safety valve” that would allow judges to ignore mandatory minimum sentences in drug trafficking cases, as well as some other violent felonies.
“Having served as a trial judge, I know there are really differences in the same kinds of crime when you look at the defendants and the facts of the crime," Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, a member of the committee, told the AP
But Deal says the process of reform is only just beginning.
“We still have a long way to go in this process, as my office engages with legislators and concerned Georgians on where we go from here,” he said in a press release. “Let’s get to work on promoting recovery and rehabilitation rather than a system that simply hardens criminals.”
Photo by Clay Duda | JJIE.org
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