Criminal justice reform is long overdue in Georgia. Last fall the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker of the House created a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. In November the Council released a special report, which contained an analysis of the criminal justice problem as well as recommendations. I was pleased to see that many of the recommendations offered in the Council’s report were similar to the recommendations GBPI proposed four years ago in the report, Tough on Crime and the Budget: The Difficult Balancing Act of Public Safety and Skyrocketing Prison Costs. The GBPI report documented the history of public policy choices that led to the dramatic growth in costs of the state prison system. To bring those costs under control, we recommended sentencing reform, evidence-based alternative sentences, and increased use of drug and mental health courts.
The criminal justice system has seen unprecedented growth in population and costs during the past 20 years. Not only has the prison population more than doubled, now near 56,000 inmates, the Department of Corrections’ budget grew from $492 million in FY 1990 to more than $1 billion today. Current projections have the prison population increasing by another eight percent by 2016–estimating nearly 60,000 inmates.
With state revenues struggling to keep up with the growth of enrollment and education costs, healthcare and state prisons, the state budget will continue to be under severe pressure. Something has got to give. The timing is right to make smart changes in criminal justice policy that will result in increased public safety and long-term savings to the state budget.
The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform made many smart policy recommendations, including expansion of accountability courts (i.e. mental health and drug courts), strengthening evidence-based community supervision programs, and reform of sentencing laws so that expensive prison beds are used for the most serious offenders.In implementing such comprehensive reforms, it is imperative that much of the initial budget savings be reinvested in the proposed courts and community-based alternative programs.
Criminal justice reform will hopefully have strong bi-partisan support because it is both smart public policy and budget policy.