Monday, June 25, 2012

Deal takes on education, job training for Georgia prisoners

Posted By on Mon, Jun 25, 2012 at 12:54 PM

Speaking to the United Negro College Fund on Thursday, Gov. Nathan Deal said he wants a new criminal justice reform law signed last month to focus education and online job training for nonviolent inmates in the state's prison system.

Deal called it a historic day for Georgia when he inked House Bill 1176 in early May, a law that will bring major changes to the way the state punishes non-violent offenders (and potentially save tax payers a couple hundred million over the next five years) when it kicks in on July 1.

And it's a step in the right direction, according to a November 2011 report by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians - a 13-person inter-branch panel set up to make recommendations for improving public safety and stemming increasing prison costs.

Over the past two decades, Georgia's prison population has more than doubled and, according to the report, almost 60 percent of that growth came from lower-risk drug and property-crime offenders - the type of offenders the new law aims to help get back on their feet and avoid jail in the future.

Yet while the number of inmates and cost of corrections has climbed (more than $1 billion in the last fiscal year), recidivism rates and public safety levels have largely plateaued over the last 10 years.

"Georgia tax payers haven't received a better public safety return on their corrections dollars: the recidivism rate has remained unchanged at nearly 30 percent throughout the past decade," the report said.

Another report released earlier this month, this one by the Pew Center on the States, supports a number of the criminal justice council's recommendations.

Over the past 20 years serious crime has been in decline around the nation due in part to tougher and longer prison terms, the Pew report notes. But "criminologists and policy makers increasingly agree that we have reached a 'tipping point' with incarceration, where additional imprisonment will have little if any effect on crime."

If Georgia's current policies remain the same, the prison population is projected to reach 60,000 inmates by 2016, and cost taxpayers an additional $264 million a year, according to the state council's report.

Couple that with tighter budgets and new research into techniques to reduce recidivism while limiting financial burdens, and states around the country are experiencing a sort of corrections renaissance, moving away from the decades-old motif that incarceration equals public safety.

Georgia's 13-person criminal justice panel will primarily focus on more effective ways to rehabilitate juveniles when it reconvenes later this year, but will also delve into beefing up educational opportunities for adult inmates. Stay tuned.

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