Georgia eyeing prison reform for nonviolent drug offenders

Georgia eyeing prison reform for nonviolent drug offenders

February 17th, 2011 by Joy Lukachick Smith in News

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal

ATLANTA -- Georgia could change the way nonviolent drug offenders are sentenced and jailed if a North Georgia lawmaker's bill makes it through the General Assembly.

Backed by each branch of state government, Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, announced a bill forming a committee that will spend a year trying to figure out how to rehabilitate repeat offenders.

"For decades we've been treating the symptoms of our addicted, mentally ill offenders ... rather than treating the root cause of those symptoms," Neal said, standing on the Capitol steps.

The goal is to begin introducing criminal justice reform in next year's legislative session, he said.

Georgia has the fourth-largest prison population in the country and spends about $1 billion a year on corrections, state officials said.

That's about $18,000 a year per inmate, Gov. Nathan Deal said at a news conference Wednesday.

"That math doesn't work in Georgia," Deal said.

Up to 75 percent of Georgia prison inmates are there because of an alcohol or drug addiction and the current system isn't reducing those addictions, Deal said.

House Bill 265 would create a bipartisan committee with members from the executive, legislative and judicial branches that would spend the next year studying how money could be better spent to reduce recidivism, Neal said.

Options could include giving nonviolent drug offenders more opportunities for daytime reporting centers and creating more drug, DUI and mental health courts in the state, Deal said. The committee also will look at updating how drug offenders are sentenced, he said, and how money now is being spent.

"If we can do some funding on the front end to deal with this better, we'll save a lot of funding on the back end," he said.

State officials backing the bill contend the legislation and subsequent committee proposals will not soften the punishment for crimes. They argued that proposed laws would help reduce offenders' addictions and not allow people to treat prison as a revolving door.

"The punishment should match the crime," said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

The committee will look at how to provide prosecutors and judges with more sentencing options so defendants can properly be held accountable for crimes and get the help they need, Cagle said.

When courts don't have many options for dealing with nonviolent offenders, those people tend to not get the attention or treatment they need, Deal said.

"If we focus our resources in ways that will prevent the repeat offenders, then hopefully we will not see these processes reoccur," he said.

If the legislation passes, state officials say they will have some practical solutions after the study deadline on Jan. 12, 2012.

Contact Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.