ATLANTA - Data from the Georgia Department of Corrections says the number of black inmates in 2013 reached its lowest level since 1988.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports state corrections data shows the number of black men sent to prison in the past five years declined by 19 percent and the number of black women sent to prison in the same time period dropped by 33 percent. Georgia has seen an overall 15 percent drop in inmates since 2009, according to the data.
The drop may be linked to a large decline in crack cocaine use which was used primarily by African Americans, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation Deputy Director Russell Andrews. Meanwhile, authorities throughout the state have seen an increase in cases involving methamphetamine, according to GBI records.
"There's been a widespread acceptance of drug courts and a shift in public opinion that we cannot continue to lock up every person who has committed a felony," GBI Director Vernon Keenan said. "For decades, progressive law enforcement has said that people arrested for drugs and who are addicts need treatment and not incarceration. This shows there is finally a recognition of that."
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said improving economic conditions may also be a factor in the statistics.
"Many black men who in the past might have committed crimes out of economic need are no longer doing so," he said.
DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James said he's pleased to see the result of the state re-examining prosecution of nonviolent drug offenders and said the recidivism rates for young, poor, minority and uneducated ex-convicts is unacceptable.
"If I've got a 17-year-old who's selling drugs on the corner in East Atlanta or South DeKalb, I don't know if I'm protecting society from that person if I lock him up and he then doesn't get an education. I think there are some things we can do with that individual before we throw that person to the wolves, before we throw him away for a period of time," James said.
Despite the shift in sentencing for drug-related crimes, the data shows that Georgia's overall inmate count has dropped by 3 percent since 2009. The newspaper reports that two out of three Georgia inmates are either violent criminals or sex offenders who are serving long sentences.