Opinion - 'Tough on crime' no more

After bleeding cash thanks to its 'lock 'em up' obsession, Georgia eyes reforming its juvenile justice system

It is rare in these times of divided politics that the left and right can find common ground.

It is rarer still when the two can craft policies that appeal to those on the progressive ideological spectrum, enjoy the support of a legislature with a near supermajority of Republicans, and be shepherded along by a GOP governor.

A bill to reform Georgia's juvenile justice system is working its way through the Georgia General Assembly and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal. This comes on the heels of last year's efforts to reclassify many felonies as misdemeanors and reduce sentences for many crimes. After decades of politicians running on "tough on crime" platforms, the change in political calculus is nothing short of dramatic, and should be recognized as such.

The common ground that is uniting the left with the right is money — or, more specifically, the lack of money. The checkbook sometimes has a much better ability to bring people together when it is empty than when those same people are competing for the plentiful resources that are available in better times.

Georgia's adult and juvenile prison system is currently filled as the result of decades of tough-on-crime legislation. When the nation went through a "three strikes and you're out" phase, Georgia did it one better with only two strikes. We took the war on drugs seriously with harsh (read: expensive) long-term sentences for generally all drug offenses, while many states opened up for-profit markets in the use of medical and now recreational marijuana.

The result of Georgia's "tough on crime" strategy is prisons that are packed to capacity and draining state coffers. As noted by Deal during last year's sentencing reform efforts, the costs to the state extended beyond the Department of Corrections' budget. Sentencing citizens to long prison terms for nonviolent crimes put a permanent stain on the record of those incarcerated. They become individuals destined to be underemployed for the rest of their lives, likely relying on state programs for living and medical assistance and paying much less in taxes than if they were employed at their optimal level.

In short, the price of long prison sentences for nonviolent criminals was a long-term cost to the state that continued well after the inmate left the prison. And that price was too high.

A similar approach has been taken with this year's House Bill 242, which seeks to offer youthful offenders a rehabilitation process through community-based programs instead of detention in a juvenile inmate population. The goal is to cut the current recidivism rate, where roughly two-thirds of those from the system end up behind bars again within three years.

Conservatives are keen on the idea that the changes will also save Georgia taxpayers $88 million over a five-year period. The savings will come partly from eliminating the $90,000 annual expense for locking up the 640 teenagers who will instead be diverted to other programs. The state will also cancel the planned construction of two new detention facilities.

Currently, 25 percent of the population in youth detention centers are kids whose offenses are minor infractions, many of which are "crimes" only because of the age of the offender. Truancy and underage drinking currently put some Georgia teens into a system where other inmates, sentenced for serious offenses, become their friends and peers.

The state wants to divert the nonviolent young men and women from a system that is just as likely to lead them on to other crimes as it is to rehabilitation. After all, it's better to place these offenders alongside more positive role models rather than introduce them to ne'er-do-wells with whom they might plan their next, bigger crime.

The new system will focus more on rehabilitation of the juvenile and less on punishment. The teen will more often be placed in community-based programs rather than locked up. More effort will, at least in concept, be devoted to helping the teen become a model citizen.

It sounds good and is the stuff that touchy-feely leftists will be proud of. As for the tough-on-crime folks from the right? They like the total budget savings of nearly $90 million over a five-year period. Though it does not occur often, it appears that the inmate-centered approach favored by the left is also the low-cost approach favored by the right. That's usually called a consensus. And it's on its way to becoming a law.

Last week the bill passed the state House of Representatives with a vote of 173-0. The legislation is now being reviewed in the state Senate and is expected to pass there as well, and eventually should be signed by the governor. And with that, another round of revising Georgia's criminal code to be more cost-effective and more focused on rehabilitation will be in the books. Kind of funny how two sides can work together, isn't it?

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