Transitioning from being ‘Tough on Crime’ to being ‘Smart on Crime’

It is rare for the Georgia legislature to provide unanimous bipartisan approval for a major change in public policy. But so dire was the need for reform in the criminal justice system, that the final version a major sentencing overhaul bill passed both chambers unanimously. The new policy reduces or eliminates prison sentences for many non-violent offenders. It instead provides these individuals with rehabilitation and other alternatives to incarceration.

The sentencing reforms would reserve prison beds for violent offenders and channel the savings into programs that focus on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. In addition to providing a common sense approach to sentencing, the plan is also projected to save more than $250 million in state spending over the next five years.

Traditionally, Georgia had been at the forefront of the campaign to get “tough on crime.” To some policy makers it seemed like the best way to make the streets safer was to enact strict mandatory sentences. Coincidentally, this approach was also an easy way to appeal to the voters. Being tough on crime sounds great in a sound bite, but unfortunately it proved to be less effective as a public policy.

While this new initiative makes important strides to improve our criminal justice system, there is still much room for improvement. For instance, in Georgia, many traffic violations are still criminal offenses. In many other states, they are treated as simply a violation carrying a fine. Decriminalizing traffic offenses and other reforms will likely be taken up in future legislative sessions.

Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Governor to sign sweeping justice reform bill,” Aaron Gould Sheinin and Bill Rankin, May 1, 2012