GAINESVILLE, Ga. - Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation Friday that would create a panel to study Georgia's criminal justice system with an eye toward overhauling the state's tough sentencing laws.
The laws have left the state with overcrowded prisons and taxpayers with an annual corrections bill that tops $1 million.
The legislation creates a 13-member commission that would study sentencing reforms in hopes of offering alternative sentences for some drug addicts and other nonviolent offenders. The panel would have to report its findings by early 2012, in time for lawmakers to act on them in the next legislative session.
"We must do a better job rehabilitating lives. We know that drug addiction is the root cause of much crime," the governor said at a signing ceremony at the Hall County Courthouse. "Our entire society benefits if we can turn these tax burdens into taxpayers. I look forward to working with this council to make Georgia corrections work better for Georgians."
The measure was adopted overwhelmingly by Georgia lawmakers and from leaders of all three branches of state government as a way to slash the state's incarceration rate, which is the highest in the nation, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.
The high incarceration rate comes with high costs. Georgia pays $3,800 each year to educate a child in public schools, and $18,000 every year to keep each inmate behind bars, Deal said.
The governor mustered support from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, House Speaker David Ralston and leaders of the judiciary, including Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein.
Hall County is one of several counties that have adopted drug courts, which aim to provide alternative sentences for low-level drug offenders.
At the ceremony, drug court graduate Mike Wilcoxson said the program changed his life.
"One thing drug court has done for me is give me a sense of purpose in my life, to set goals for myself, to be accountable for my actions, and to break the cycle of addiction I had," Wilcoxson said.
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