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'Lock 'em all up' hasn't worked
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Georgia’s prison population has grown 35 percent during the past decade and is projected to continue growing during the next five years. Public safety is bolstered when offenders who are violent, dangerous or career criminals are put behind bars, but too often lower-level offenders emerge from prison as more hardened criminals.
Unfortunately, about two-thirds of those admitted to prison in Georgia have been convicted of nonviolent offenses. The “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach has failed this state. The streets aren’t necessarily made safer by locking up low-risk, nonviolent offenders. The state spends more than $1 billion annually on corrections, yet nearly 35 percent of inmates released return to custody within three years.
The problem is that the current corrections system too frequently fails to break the cycle of crime, reform offenders and maximize the public-safety benefit for every Georgia taxpayer’s dollar spent. That soon could change for the better. A new commission created by Gov. Nathan Deal and the Legislature is scheduled to issue reform recommendations in November.
Georgia taxpayers can get a better return for their public-safety investment once lawmakers realize they simultaneously can be tough on crime and smart on criminal-justice spending. Conservative, commonsense reforms that began in Texas have spread across the South to Kentucky, South Carolina and Arkansas. Conservative leaders in these states have led the charge in changing policies to ensure that prisons are prioritized for violent and dangerous offenders while low-risk, nonviolent offenders are supervised and required to work, pay restitution and seek treatment.
Right on Crime, a conservative national organization, has worked in many of these Southern states to promote criminal-justice reform.
This initiative, which advocates a corrections system that emphasizes accountability, personal responsibility, limited government and fiscal sustainability, recently was launched in Georgia.
Texas is a prime example of how Right on Crime’s principles, when implemented, have produced overwhelmingly positive results. In 2007, the Lone Star state was faced with the prospect of adding 17,000 new prison beds to accommodate the projected growth in its prison population.
Instead of funneling millions of dollars into expanding an already-bloated prison system, Texas strengthened probation supervision. The state gave probation departments funds for lowering caseloads and implementing swift, sure and commensurate sanctions for probation violations in exchange for committing to reduce the rate at which their probationers fail and, thus, must be revoked to prison.
The state expanded the capacity of drug courts and community-based programs for addicted offenders and those with mental illness.
These reforms saved Texas more than $2 billion and resulted in the state holding 7,000 fewer inmates than if no policy changes were enacted. Texas’ crime rate also dropped 10.8 percent, its lowest point since 1973.
There’s no need to travel to Texas to see that the Right on Crime approach works. Georgia’s 28 drug courts provide offenders with drug treatment and vocational training as an alternative to a prison sentence. These programs have had tremendous success.
“A statewide study in Georgia found the two-year recidivism rate among drug-court participants was 7 percent, compared with 15 percent for those on probation alone and 29 percent for drug users who served time in state prison,” according to an editorial in Economist magazine.
Georgia’s corrections system has benefited enormously from the limited use of drug courts and day reporting centers. But there is still much to be done when it comes to criminal-justice reform. With a prison population expected to approach 60,000 in the next five years, it is critical that the state’s leaders do more to reform criminal justice.

McCutchen is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.

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