When the final ink was dry, everyone in the Georgia legislature agreed it is time to move forward with widespread criminal justice reform. The House voted 162-0 and the Senate 51-0 in March on legislation that will emphasize treatment programs over hard-time incarceration for some property crime offenders and low-level drug users. From the beginning, supporters said these are not going-soft-on-crime strategies.
New ideas adopted this year recognize the state cannot continue to absorb more than the $1.5 billion per year that it spends on prisons, parole and probation. State prisons hold 56,000 inmates and each day local jails contain hundreds to thousands of inmates who are waiting for an empty state bed. Georgia also has 22,000 adult parolees and 156,000 on felony probation.
These ideas will take years to fully incorporate. They include new and expanded accountability courts, especially drug and mental health courts that will reroute eligible offenders into treatment programs with severe oversight. New definitions and penalty levels were established for several property crimes including theft, burglary, shoplifting and forgery.
The state will move toward prosecution of drug offenses based on the type and weight of drugs to clarify the distinction between casual users, sellers and traffickers. Child abuse laws were tightened as were requirements for reporting suspected sexual abuse and suspicion of human trafficking.
Criminal justice reform is not a single year issue. It will take money and time to develop public and private resources. Sheriffs and the county district attorneys are concerned about the impact of reform on their budgets, facilities and staffs. Everyone already knows this will take a steep learning curve and some corrections are likely. Governor Nathan Deal kept the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform intact and it is expected to have new assignments this year.