Budget pressures force conservatives to propose progressive solutions to prison overcrowding in Georgia

Progressive changes from conservative Georgia legislators

In the week ahead, surprising reforms in my home state’s criminal justice practices are likely to be introduced in Georgia’s Republican-dominated (conservative) General Assembly. The Sunday issue of my hometown newspaper, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, reported the good news on Page One, below the fold. (“Lawmakers examine cheaper options to growing population behind bars.”)

The staggering costs of incarceration, and the skyrocketing rates of incarceration, are the primary reasons behind the proposed reforms, not an overarching concern for fairness, restorative justice or “doing the right thing.”

Georgia leads the nation in locking up its citizens
Fiscal conservatism is forcing Georgia's Republicans to adopt progressive reforms.

The “lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” binge of the 1990s resulted in the budget crisis and prison overcrowding of the new millennium.

Former Governor Zell Miller’s catchy get-tough on crime “Seven Deadly Sins” policy, and the one-upmanship of the General Assembly’s “two strikes, you’re out” legislation, resulted in longer sentences and less reliance on the parole board, restorative justice and probation. Today, Georgia has one of the highest incarceration rates among the nation's criminal justice systems , at an average cost of $18,000 per prisoner.

It turns out, many of the individuals locked up because of those policiesand thrown into the midst of prison overcrowding  are not best served by harsh sentences, and would be far less likely to repeat their crimes if handled by community-based programs of restorative justice or other alternative restorative approaches instead of serving time behind bars.

The expected reforms stress, “personal responsibility and a shot at redemption for nonviolent offenders in a state that has long preferred to lock such people up,” according to AJC reporters Carrie Teegardin (ctgardin@ajc.com)  and Bill Rankin (brankin@ajc.com).

The newspaper’s 2010 investigative reporting of prison overcrowding probably prompted former Democratic Congressman, now Republican Governor Nathan Deal to appoint the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which generated the proposed reforms.  (It probably didn’t hurt that funding for the Special Council was available from the Pew Center on the States.)[pullquote] '... any policy that moves away from needless lock-up, and in the direction of helping restore offenders to their communities — while addressing the harms done to victims— is a better policy than we’ve had in many years,' -A Georgia advocate for restorative justice.[/pullquote]

Under the new approach to ‍justice, thousands of drug addicts, thieves and small-time offenders would be punished, but not imprisoned. Incarceration --- the most expensive punishment --- would be reserved for the most dangerous ‍criminals, according to Teegardin and Rankin’s AJC report. These new alternative approaches, it seems to me, should be open to restorative justice and other structured restorative practices.

(AP Photo/John Bazemore) GA Gov. Nathan Deal suggested parolees could harvest crops in place of immigrants.
Georgia's Governor Nathan Deal suggested former inmates harvest crops in place of immigrnats.

According to the Pew Center on the States, one in 13 Georgians is behind bars, on probation or on parole — the highest rate of correctional control in the nation and more than double the national average of 1 in 31.

A lawyer friend of Fairnessworks.com, who is close to the reform efforts, commented last summer that Governor Deal wanted his reform proposals to follow conservative proposals in states such as Texas and South Carolina, and not refer to progressive reforms in blue states.  In today’s AJC report, the source’s comments were confirmed:

“(Gov. Nathan) Deal is following conservatives in other states, such as Texas and South Carolina, who found that the ‘tough on crime’ sensibility of the 1990s was too tough on taxpayers in the 2000s.”

A friend in the restorative justice movement was philosophical about the likely "bottom line" reforms:   “Whatever the motivation, any policy that moves away from needless lock-up, and in the direction of helping restore offenders to their communities --- while addressing the harms done to victims--- is a better policy than we’ve had in many years.”

Perhaps because the state of California is under pressure from the U.S. Supreme Court to relieve prison overcrowding, or maybe because of the raw numbers of inmates packed behind bars, there is a more organized activism for reform in the Golden State than currently exists in Georgia.  But, since Georgia ranks ninth among the states in population, but has the fourth-largest prison system in the nation, grassroots organizing may soon follow in the Peach State.

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