The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform issued several recommendations last month in an effort to curb prison spending. If left unchecked, the panel says, Georgia’s prison population will explode another 8% by 2016, requiring another $264 million to accommodate the population.
The panel was created by Governor Nathan Deal earlier this year in order to search for potential areas of change within the system. Made up of judges, lawmakers, and other officials, the council focused on lightening up on nonviolent drug offenders and reducing penalties for crimes like shoplifting.
The state of Georgia has a disproportionate number of people under correctional supervision. The national average says that 1 in every 31 people are in prison or jail, or under probation or parole supervision. Here in Georgia, that rate is more than doubled, with one in 13 under correctional supervision. This makes Georgia the most incarcerated state in the nation.
More than 3,200 people enter prison on a drug possession charge each year in our state. Of these, the council found, more than 2/3 have been found to be at a low risk for reoffending. For one of their recommendations, the panel has suggested the state create a statewide system of alternative courts (drug, mental health, and veterans’ courts) that provide alternatives to incarceration and assistance to those offenders who may be dealing with addiction. Courts like these have been shown to save money and reduce recidivism.
Another suggestion the panel made is in adjusting the classifications for shoplifting, something that hasn’t been done in years, despite the effects of inflation. Now, the law says that any shoplifting of more than $300 is a felony. The suggestion is that amount be increased to $750, with anything less than $750 being classified as a misdemeanor.
A similar recommendation has been made for theft offenses—increasing the threshold from $500 to $1,500 for felony charges.
Governor Deal has called the recommendations a “starting point” according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) has said “he will make the report’s recommendations a priority in the upcoming legislative session.”
In addition, many criminal justice reform advocates are likely to support the proposed changes too. The Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, Sara Totonchi, says, “This is a great road map for Georgia to take the initial steps to move away from our incarceration crisis while still protecting public safety.”
No changes were suggested for violent offenders though the panel did suggest judges have a “safety” valve available, allowing them to use facts of a case to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in more serious drug crimes and such. This would not affect cases involving things like murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery, however.
Other recommendations were made including: decriminalizing some traffic offenses, reducing sentencing ranges for burglary, expanding drug treatment options within the community, and allowing inmates to shave time off their sentences by taking “steps toward rehabilitation.”
Which of these recommendations are actually adopted into law will remain to be seen, though support is high for such changes.
In the meantime, any law violations are subject to the current sentencing laws on the books. If you are facing any criminal charges, the best way to know what you’re up against is in consulting with a criminal defense lawyer.