When I took office in January 2011, Georgia was in the midst of a criminal justice system crisis. The state’s prison population and incarceration budget had doubled in the previous two decades and taxpayers were spending $1 billion per year to keep tens of thousands of inmates behind bars. The recidivism rate hovered at 30 percent for adults and 65 percent for juveniles, indicating that efforts to rehabilitate offenders were not working as they should have been.
To address this crisis, I established a task force to examine reform initiatives that eventually led to the creation of accountability courts, improvements to the juvenile justice system and expanded efforts to facilitate a smoother re-entry process for returning citizens. The Georgia General Assembly used these recommendations to enact two rounds of reforms in 2012 and 2013 that have made Georgia’s criminal justice system smarter, fairer, more effective and less costly, while in no way sacrificing public safety. These reforms were approved with overwhelming bipartisan consensus in the Georgia General Assembly.
Since then, Georgia has seen a decrease of about 10.3 percent in the state’s prison inmate population, from roughly 60,000 to about 53,800. Before reform initiatives had been enacted, Georgia’s inmate population was projected to grow by 8 percent in the ensuing five years, presenting taxpayers with an additional $264 million bill in that time frame. Not only did we shred that price tag, but we were also able to forgo the construction of two additional prisons as a result of effective reforms.
The cost to incarcerate one adult offender is about $18,000 per year, which is far more expensive than an addiction rehabilitation program or mental health counseling — so it makes fiscal sense to seek alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders whenever feasible. Without the sentencing alternatives of the state’s 105 accountability courts, which give offenders a second chance and an opportunity to reverse the cycle of failure, thousands of nonviolent offenders with underlying addiction and mental health issues would likely be in prison.
Beyond fiscal considerations, criminal justice reform is essential to providing the successful rehabilitation to prevent former offenders from becoming repeat offenders. Perhaps most important of all, these reforms have the long-term potential to positively change the dynamics of families, as crime is often generational. In far too many homes, children have grown up with parents who have serious addictions or children have seen family members going in and out prison. In such cases, children start to accept this pattern as a normal way of life, but if we break the cycle of generational crime, then we not only save money and lives in the short term, but we will be truly making changes that will last for generations.
Roughly 70 percent of Georgia’s inmates do not have a high school diploma and, as recently as 2013, Georgia was spending as much as $91,000 on each incarcerated juvenile. To break the “school to prison” pipeline that had been steadily growing, juvenile court judges were provided with assessment tools to better determine the risk levels of juvenile offenders and subsequently use greater discretion in sentencing them. Additionally, reforms expanded community-based options and educational opportunities for juvenile offenders across the state, enabling the closure of two juvenile detention centers and establishing charter schools inside correctional facilities that can award diplomas to graduates.
To provide offenders with a more effective transition into society and reduce the likelihood of recidivism, re-entry programs are removing barriers to housing, education and gainful employment for rehabilitated offenders, making it possible for them to rejoin the workforce and support their families. Georgia’s Max Out-Re-Entry (MORE) program, moves an inmate from a prison bed to a transitional center for intensive community supervision up to 18 months before release. During this time, eligible offenders, with guidance from their community supervision officer, can obtain a driver’s license, find a job, participate in the prescribed programming and address any personal issues that they may have. Additionally, Georgia has “banned the box” on applications for state civil service jobs, allowing applicants with past criminal offenses to be assessed based on their qualifications instead of being reflexively denied consideration for a position.
Georgia’s criminal justice reforms have saved hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and will continue to do so. At the same time, we have saved lives and preserved families, and that’s what is important.
• Nathan Deal, a Republican, is the governor of Georgia.