Sentencing Panel Starts Work Barnes Urges Group to Make Proposal for Voluntary Guidelines

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ATLANTA -- Gov. Roy Barnes yesterday urged a new commission he appointed to come up with a plan judges can use voluntarily to gain control over Georgia's soaring prison population or he and the General Assembly will be forced to impose a solution.

"I have no problem building prisons. I showed that in the budget this year," Barnes told members of the Governor's Commission on Certainty in Sentencing, which includes judges, state lawmakers, prosecutors and other representatives of the criminal justice and corrections systems. "But I do have a problem with not knowing what we're going to need until there's a crisis."

Georgia's inmate population has been increasing at a much faster rate than the national average, even as many categories of crime have been dropping.

State prisons held 39,252 inmates at the end of last year, an increase of 7.6 percent over the previous year. During the same period nationwide, the prison population rose by only 4.8 percent.

At $47 per day per inmate, the costs of that population explosion are being felt in the Department of Corrections' budget. The DOC has grown from a $35 million operation in 1975 to $838 million during the last fiscal year, while the percentage of the budget allotted to prisons has risen during that time from 2 percent to 6.3 percent.

"Every time we put more money into it, we're taking it away from something else," said Cobb County Superior Court Judge Robert Flournoy, the new commission's chairman.

The wide disparity of sentences being handed out to convicted criminals across Georgia is getting much of the blame for the state's lack of ability to manage inmate population growth. …