Georgia taxpayers spend $1 billion a year locking up so many criminal offenders that the state has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. When it comes to overall criminal punishment, no state outdoes Georgia.They note that scare tactics made that happen.
But today, many public figures with strong anti-crime credentials are asking if that expenditure is smart, or even if it’s making Georgians safer. The debate about crime and punishment, once clearly divided along party lines, is now a debate in which conservatives often lead the charge for change.
As Georgia’s dire budget outlook required lawmakers to make painful cuts to virtually every state program, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigated whether the state’s gigantic corrections budget offered opportunities for savings.So, in a time when Georgia is cutting education budgets, should it keep spending monumental amounts to build and maintain monuments of incarceration?
Many states, including tough-on-crime Texas, have concluded they can spend less and keep the public safer by sentencing some offenders to proven treatment and supervision programs outside of prison.
Texas spends more than $3 billion a year on prisons. In 2007, facing the need to spend $540 million to construct three new prisons expected to cost another $1.5 billion to run, the state looked for alternatives. Instead, Texas spends a fraction of that on new probation and parole programs, halfway houses and specialty courts for drug offenders, veterans, drunk drivers and the mentally ill.
“We have proven that we can be tough on crime and that we can spend $1.2 billion a year doing it,” said Brian Owens, the silver-haired former parole officer who now runs Georgia’s prison system. “But I think it might be time to transition to being smart on crime.”Georgia already leads the nation in locking people up:
One in 13 Georgians is behind bars, on probation or on parole, according to the Pew Center on the States. That’s the highest rate of correctional control in the nation and more than the double the national average: 1 in 31.Maybe it’s time for Georgia to lead the nation in finding smarter ways to deal with crime, ranging from not locking people up for trivial drug offenses to finding ways like Texas did to get people back into society after being in prison, so they don’t get locked up again.
By far the most costly segment of corrections is locking someone up. About 1 in 70 Georgians is behind bars, according to the Pew study.
“It makes no intuitive sense that Georgia is the ninth-most populous state with about 9.5 million citizens but has a prison population the same as New York state with 19.5 million citizens,” Owens said. “It’s not because we’re committing more crime in Georgia.’’
Sure, there are real criminals who need to be locked up to protect society. But does Georgia really have twice as many criminals per capita as New York state? If not, maybe Georgia can lead the way in saving money by not locking people up.
What does this have to do with Lowndes County? Stay tuned.