Georgia to reconsider harsh sentencing (part 2 of 2)

In our last post we introduced the issue of criminal sentencing for non-violent offenders. We described how many non-violent offenders find themselves back in prison after getting out the first time because they have not had an opportunity to address the underlying substance abuse and mental health issues that played a role in their initial interactions with the justice system.

In the second part of this series we will look at some of the specific findings and recommendations of the Special Council appointed to consider this problem.

In our current system, Georgia has some of the toughest penalties in the nation for repeat offenders. The average inmate released this year after serving a sentence for drug possession will have spent almost two years behind bars.

The Special Council has recommended probation or shorter sentences for certain non-violent offenders. It also recommends increasing the alternatives to incarceration program. Some of these options have already demonstrated their capacity for success. “Accountability Courts” have shown remarkable success by treating underlying issues rather than relying solely on incarceration. The courts require offenders to undergo drug tests and rehabilitation, as well as requiring that they hold down a job.

Other recommendations include increasing the amount required for a theft to be considered a felony from $500 to $1,500. The current threshold was instituted almost 30 years ago. It would also reduce the sentences for burglaries of unoccupied structures such as sheds and barns. The new recommendations also call for increased discretion for judges to depart from the current mandatory minimums for drug trafficking.

Many other states, including Texas and the Carolinas, that instituted harsh sentencing reforms in previous decades have successfully increased their alternatives to incarceration programs. Georgia policy makers have made a great deal of hay from “tough on crime” rhetoric. But it seems that the state has now reached a point where it recognizes that simply locking everyone up for increasingly long sentences is not a viable public policy.

Source: The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Georgia rethinks its prison stance,” Carrie Teegardin and Bill Rankin, Jan. 3, 2011