Thursday, February 7, 2013

Georgia Leads the Way on Criminal Justice Reform

The Economist:
On March 29th 2012, Georgia’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted on a criminal-justice reform bill that read like a left-leaning criminologist’s fantasy. It revised sentencing laws to keep non-violent drug and property offenders out of prison, directing them instead toward alternatives—drug courts, day-reporting centres, mental-health courts—designed to treat and rehabilitate rather than punish. It invested millions of dollars in such programmes—not an easy sell in times of tight budgets. And it created graduated scales of punishment, allowing the law to distinguish between someone with a single joint and someone with a pound of marijuana. The House passed the bill unanimously. The Republican-controlled state Senate did the same, and Nathan Deal, Georgia’s Republican governor, signed it into law.
The return of America toward more sensible treatment of criminals is one of the great stories of the past five years. As in Georgia, it has largely been led by Republicans who are as worried about the cost as of mistreating anybody. California's titanic budget crisis provided the background for major reforms there, including the end of their infamous "three strikes" law.

Now Georgia is embarking on a similar reform of its juvenile justice system, driven by the same realization that they are spending a whole lot of money for limited return.
Nearly two-thirds of Georgia’s juvenile-justice department’s annual $300m budget goes to running residential facilities, which cost $91,126 per bed per year for long-term facilities and $88,155 for short-term. By way of comparison, the annual fee for students at Riverside Military Academy, a private boarding school just north of Atlanta, is $29,750.

But while most graduates of Riverside head to college, graduates of Georgia’s juvenile-justice facilities tend to head back inside. Fully 65% of young offenders incarcerated in one of the state’s long-term facilities, and 53% of convicted juveniles not sent to a long-term state-run facility, commit another crime within the next three years. . . . And just as nonviolent offenders take up costly space in Georgia’s adult prisons, low-risk juveniles do the same: in 2011 a majority of juveniles in non-secure residential facilities (such as supervised group homes, as distinct from detention facilities) were convicted of misdemeanour or “status” offences (crimes, such as truancy, that would not be considered crimes if committed by adults). Of that share 56% were judged to be low-risk, meaning they are deemed to pose little danger to the general population, as were 39% of those held in long-term secure facilities.
The waning of our great crime wave, which peaked back in the late 1980s, has paved the way (finally!)  for a serious rethink of how we treat criminals. While we were in panic mode, almost all politicians were terrified of appearing "soft on crime," and "lock'em all up" was the order of the day. Now people are thinking seriously about our goals -- public safety, that is -- and are much more willing to consider whether alternative strategies might help more or be much cheaper than prison for everyone.

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