Sentencing reform passed joint committee in Georgia

Remember the Georgia legislature was considering sentencing reform? Now it's passed the Special Joint Committee on Georgia Criminal Justice Reform.

Bill Rankin wrote for the AJC Tuesday, Sweeping changes to state sentencing laws passes committee,

A key legislative committee on Tuesday approved sweeping changes to Georgia's criminal justice system in a sentencing reform package intended to control prison spending and ensure costly prison beds are reserved for the state's most dangerous criminals.

Well, that sounds good!

But wait, this is cautious Georgia:

Committee co-chair Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, said the omnibus bill is expected to be considered by the House on Wednesday and is projected to save money on prison spending without making any "radical, too-fast changes" to the criminal justice system. "The primary objective here is to have a smart justice system that does not sacrifice one inch on public safety," he said.

Locking up so many people is causing a public safety problem by keeping far too many people from being gainfully employed and causing them to turn to crime.

That and the cost. To quote from the Report of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, November 2011,

Cost of Doing Nothing

During the past two decades, the prison population in Georgia has more than doubled to nearly 56,000 inmates. As a result, Georgia has one of the highest proportions of adult residents under correctional control. This growth has come at a substantial cost to Georgia's taxpayers. Today the state spends more than $1 billion annually on corrections, up from $492 million in FY 1990. Yet despite this growth in prison, 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. If current policies remain in place, analysis indicates that Georgia's prison population will rise by another 8 percent to reach nearly 60,000 inmates by 2016, presenting the state with the need to spend an additional $264 million to expand capacity.

We can't afford that while education budgets are suffering. We couldn't afford it even without education problems, for that matter.

So what are they doing? Among other things, this (back to the AJC):

Key provisions of the bill create new categories of punishment for drug possession crimes, with less severe penalties for those found with small quantities to the most severe penalties available for those possessing large amounts of drugs. Judges would be allowed to impose a sentence of no more than three years for possession of less than a gram of drugs, for example, and be allowed to give a sentence of up to 15 years in prison for those found possessing between four and 28 grams of narcotics.

If that's what counts as sentencing reform, imagine what the current laws must be like.

I agree with the GBI that it's too complicated:

The panel sought to allay concerns by prosecutors and GBI Director Vernon Keenan who had warned that the state crime lab would be inundated with new cases — at an estimated cost in the millions of dollars — because drugs that are confiscated will have to be weighed before any sentences are imposed. For this reason, Golick said, these new provisions are to be implemented in two stages, the first in July 2013 and the next a year later, so more resources can be dedicated to handle the added expense.

Less complicated would be to end prohibition by not locking people up for drug possession. Legalize, regulate, and tax.

But at least this sentencing reform is a tiny step in the right direction.

This direction, according to the Report:

Many of the policy proposals in this report focus on improving community-based supervision, sanctions and services as well as other practices proven to reduce recidivism, which are essential to improving public safety. Some of these proposals will require investment by the state. In order to allow for this reinvestment, the policy proposals in this report provide the legislature with options to avert much if not all of the projected growth in the prison population and corresponding costs over the next five years.

Stopping increase in inmates is a main reason we shouldn't ever see a private prison in Lowndes County, Georgia.

Now let's see about reducing the prison population in Georgia, and spending some of that $1 billion a year on education instead.