Today’s Courier Herald Column:
It’s go time at the Georgia General Assembly. The fluff time spent honoring various beauty queens, local artists, and other dignitaries with resolutions during the first 25 days while bills circulate through committee is generally over. The final 15 days or so tend to pick up pace, and signature legislation that will mark major changes in Georgia law become clearer and dominate more of the discussion about legislative activities.
As most legislation that will pass this session has at least had its first committee hearing, one of the bills that was expected to be central to this year’s debates finally made its initial appearance Monday. The bill that will overhaul Georgia’s sentencing guidelines based on recommendations of a Criminal Justice Reform Council appointed by Governor Deal. The primary goal of the council was to identify ways to reduce Georgia’s one billion dollar annual budget for the department of corrections.
The lawmakers tweaked the council’s recommendations to not only lower sentences for some minor crimes but increase sentences of crimes that are more severe. The changes made from the council’s recommendations to the actual legislation earned a slight rebuke from Governor Deal’s office, who indicated that the bill in its current form is not exactly acceptable. The Governor’s communications director told the AJC that “the process is intended to reduce costs to taxpayers, and it’s his opinion that this bill might actually increase costs.”
While there is general agreement that the council’s recommendations that minor drug infractions and petty property crimes should result in sentences that do not contribute to Georgia’s long term prison population, the politics of making their goals a reality are a lot more sticky. No legislator wants to face charges of being soft on crime in a tough on crime state. Thus, for many categories where sentences were reduced for minor infractions, they are proposed to increase on the most severe infractions.
There is cover from the bill for legislators on both the left and the spectrum. Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, Georgia’s walking personification of a tough on crime D.A., was a member of the council that produced the recommendations and generally supports the bill. Meanwhile, Sara Totonchi, the Director for the Atlanta based Southern Center For Human Rights, lends support from someone that is usually on polar opposite sides with McDade.
Legislators now must grapple with weighing whether the status quo and it’s estimated $50 Million plus per year in increased expenditures for the Department of Corrections outweighs the political risk of relaxing their individual tough on crime personas.
One can expect tweaks to be made to the bill to satisfy Governor Deal’s concerns that the reforms do not adequately produce the savings that are envisioned. One could also expect at least a few legislators to request assurances that their pet projects may be funded with some of the anticipated savings. This is, after all, how legislation is made.
In the end, the costs need to be weighed not only on the ledgers of Georgia’s finances, but on the cost of human capital.
Mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug infractions now seem like a relic when other states have legalized the sale of marijuana and make it available in retail storefronts. While it remains well within Georgia’s rights to keep marijuana illegal, incarcerating users at the expense of the taxpayer while other states have created industries around selling the drug as medicine is a paradox that will not stand the test of time – or more importantly, a lingering budget crunch.
Furthermore, setting felony convictions for relatively minor offenses diminishes the prospect that the offender will ever be able to find employment at a level that would allow for self sufficiency. As such, the balance of how harshly to treat those who commit minor offenses as a deterrent must be weighed against the long term cost in the loss of the individual’s future employment possibilities.
Those who will not be life long prison inmates will eventually pay their price to society and return to live among us. They need to be prepared and able to be productive Georgians, lest they either return to the prison population, or become expenses to the taxpayer in the form of Medicaid, welfare, and other forms of public assistance given to those who are unemployed or underemployed.
There are no easy answers, but Georgia is right to consider updating sentencing guidelines. A balance must be struck between protecting law abiding Georgians and making sure the punishment for those who break Georgia’s laws adequately reflects the severity of the crime.