Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Georgia Is Far Ahead on Prison Reforms

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Georgia Is Far Ahead on Prison Reforms

Article excerpt

(The finale of a three-part series)

Georgia is far ahead of Florida on reforming its prisons.

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization, has called Georgia "the laboratory of criminal justice reform."

Georgia made sweeping changes in sentencing guidelines and introduced programs to promote successful re-entry of released prisoners into communities.

A key to Georgia's reforms is the astonishing lack of political partisanship. When the sweeping legislation passed into law in 2012, it was approved unanimously by Georgia lawmakers.

LEADERSHIP MATTERS

Nathan Deal, a former state prosecutor and judge, took office as governor in 2011. He promised to examine a prison system that was costing too much money and producing too few positive outcomes.

Like many other states, Georgia's get-tough-on-crime policies had bloated the prisons by putting an emphasis on incarceration and not rehabilitation. Annual prison costs soared from $492 million in 1990 to $1 billion in 2011.

Prisons were becoming a sort of crime college, turning people convicted of relatively minor offenses into hardened and sometimes violent criminals.

Deal was determined to reduce prison costs and improve outcomes by steering non-violent criminals to other settings. But he was resolute it would not be a piecemeal attempt at reforms; the system would be examined from the bottom-up and changes made everywhere needed.

What began with the creation in 2011 of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform, composed of lawmakers, lawyers, judges and other officials, has led to substantial reforms and changes in the way criminal justice is handled in Georgia.

"We had to change the language, the thinking and the paradigms," says Jay Neal, executive director of the Governor's Office of Transition, Support and Re-entry within the Georgia system.

LONG-TERM CHANGES

To help it pinpoint practices working in other states that might work in Georgia, the justice reform council enlisted the help of the Pew Center on the States.

Since then, the council has gone on to review and issue changes for the juvenile justice system and put into place numerous practices the council hopes will support and provide successful transitions for prisoners leaving the system and returning to their homes.

At each stage, Georgia has been willing to earmark funding for the reforms, even realizing that it might not see a "return on investment" for years to come.

Some of the changes include:

- An overhaul of sentencing guidelines, including the diversion of non-violent drug offenders to rehabilitation programs.

- Accountability courts let nonviolent offenders remain in the community but require them to make amends.

- Three treatment facilities provide alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders who have substance abuse or mental health problems. …

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