What you are about to read is a big deal: Georgia has significantly reduced the number of state custody male inmates sitting in local county jails. Georgia corrections commissioner Brian Owens made the announcement this week during a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform meeting in Forsyth. His comment so surprised judges, legislators, prosecutors and others that several let out a huge gasp.
“As a result of the legislation and your recommendations, today we have zero males … zero males … in county jails waiting to come into the state system,” Owens said. “We have about 200 females but we’re going to address that come January and February. We’ll be able to get the females out. That is huge to local budgets for our county sheriffs.”
County jails have historically been the default option when state probation detention centers are overcrowded. County jails held 315 male state inmates and 302 females in July who were awaiting placement in a probation detention center. Overflow issues were addressed last year by the Special Council and the 2012 General Assembly. State law changed on July 1 to specify that offenders could spend no more than 180 days in a probation detention center.
This change pertains to felony offenders who were sentenced to not less than one year on probation or specific categories of misdemeanor offenders who subsequently violated probation terms. After confinement for 180 days eligible offenders who are not considered a risk to public safety may be considered for transfer into probation and community supervision programs. Also, this pertains only to offenders who were awaiting placement in a probation detention center. Local jails still hold some other state inmates.
This week’s Special Council meeting provided a glimpse into the implementation of reforms proposed one year ago and enacted by the 2012 General Assembly in House Bill 1176. There has been substantial progress in electronic record keeping. New substance abuse and mental health treatment centers and day reporting centers have opened. A program to help long-term inmates transition back into the community will launch in January.
“Talking about electronic sentencing, today 156 of 159 counties are transmitting sentences electronically to the Department of Corrections which is huge, again, a direct result of 1176,” Owens said. More than 5,660 state inmates from 110 counties had their sentences transmitted electronically to the state. Forty-six additional counties have agreed to use electronic reporting while just three counties – Cobb, Fayette and Jefferson – are currently not participating.
Probation detention centers are being re-purposed. This year the Appling, Pike and Turner county detention centers were converted into residential substance abuse treatment centers. Appling and Turner can also provide mental health services for men.
The number of day reporting centers that provide more intense substance abuse treatment at a lower cost than incarceration will expand to 15 next month when a Lookout Mountain circuit center opens in north Georgia. Corrections opened a day reporting center in July in Savannah. Offenders who do not comply with day reporting requirements are considered to be in violation of probation terms and they could find themselves returned to incarceration.
House Bill 1176, the criminal justice reform law, reduced some drug possession and theft maximum sentences from 60 to 38 months as of July 1 this year, the date legislation became effective. On its own initiative the parole board reviewed 600 earlier sentences for possible reductions. State parole board member Robert E. Keller told the Council, “We changed our decisions in 191 offenders which netted a savings of 32,000 bed days and about $1.5 million.”
Last year the Special Council asked that the state rethink how it transitions long-term inmates before they are released back into the community. Two years ago 7,495 offenders released from prisons had no parole officer; 1,592 had no probation officer. These are so-called max out prisoners who served the longest possible sentences after their convictions. Next month about 1,000 long-term prisoners who are scheduled for release before March 2014 will be assigned to a program to help prepare them for transition back into the real world.
Parole officers will focus on their housing and employment options along with health and other services offenders will require upon their final release. Eligible offenders will be moved from prisons into transition centers during the final 12 months of incarceration. Offenders will sleep at the transition centers, be required to work and will surrender their earnings to cover costs. This is a dramatic step forward from receiving $25 and a bus ticket upon release.
Next Thursday the Special Council is expected to vote on a new package of juvenile justice and adult corrections proposals. Those will be sent to Governor Nathan Deal and it is anticipated that the 2013 General Assembly will consider and implement some new proposals. The juvenile system, for example, has not been seriously overhauled in about 25 years. The proposals will not be set in stone; legislators will be able to modify ideas submitted by the Special Council.
This post also appears on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Forum Blog.