Proposed criminal justice reforms concerning to local sheriffs

bpurser@macon.comJanuary 17, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- Middle Georgia sheriffs will likely keep close tabs on criminal justice reform measures expected to be tackled this session by state lawmakers, with some already concerned the recommendations may result in shifting the financial burden of housing offenders to county jails.

“Tax revenues for counties have decreased dramatically statewide,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said. “Yet a significant part of the recommendations of this report are going to have a remarkable impact on local taxpayers to fund it unless the state gives us the money to do those things.”

The recommendations, which include shortening sentences for some nonviolent offenders, are from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians. The council, which was established by lawmakers last year, was charged with improving public safety while decreasing state prison costs.

Sills and other Middle Georgia sheriffs took issue with a key report finding that 60 percent of all admissions to Georgia prisons are drug and property offenders who are at lower risk to offend again. The report found many of these individuals would be best served in the community, which would free up prison beds for more high-risk offenders.

Although it’s true the convictions may be for crimes such as cocaine possession as opposed to trafficking, Sills said a closer look at those cases would be revealing. He expects further examination would find these offenders have been in and out of county jails, have had one break after another in probated sentences or plea agreements, and were finally sent to prison based on the totality of their criminal history.

A stint or more in the county jail hasn’t proved much of a deterrent for many of these individuals, he said.

Another concern cited by regional sheriffs dealt with a recommendation to adjust the felony theft threshold for inflation from $500 to $1,500.

The increase would apply to theft by taking, by deception, by conversion, by receiving stolen property, by receiving property stolen in another state, by bringing stolen property into the state, theft of services, of lost or mislaid property and copper theft, the report stated.

Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese noted increasing the threshold does not mean fewer of these crimes will be committed. But it does mean those who commit them now will be sent to the county jails, he said.

Also troubling, for Peach County in particular, is the impact of the recommendation in the absence of a State Court, Deese said. Unlike Houston County, which has a State Court for misdemeanor crimes and a Superior Court to handle felony offenses, Peach County has only a Superior Court. The end result of raising the threshold is having more misdemeanor cases “fall into a black hole,” Deese said.

In addition, Sills found it ironic there is much bolstering about creating tougher laws to address the widespread problems of metal theft, yet the council’s recommendation was to bring copper theft down to a misdemeanor.

Deal backs reform in budget

State Rep. Willie Talton, R-Warner Robins, who served on the 13-member special council, said he believes the recommendations balance the need to reduce the prison population and curb incarceration costs with protecting the public.

Talton said the recommendations need to be looked at in their totality, although budget and other constraints may not allow for immediate adoption of the proposals. He also expects some measures may be massaged as the recommendations go through the legislative process.

“I think we should look at things like this as trying to help the system -- yet make sure our system’s protected,” said Talton, a former Houston County sheriff’s chief deputy.

Talton said he believes the recommendations will be a priority for lawmakers this session. He noted Gov. Nathan Deal’s commitment to the reform, citing the governor’s State of the State address last week. The recommendations were outlined in a 25-page report released in November.

In his address, Deal proposed $1.4 million for additional parole officers at the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.

“These officers will provide supervision to offenders who would otherwise serve their sentence and be released in our communities without any supervision,” Deal stated in his written address.

In its report, the council recommended mandatory supervision for all offenders who “max-out” their sentence to reduce recidivism.

“By requiring that offenders serve time on parole, parole officers can provide supervision while these offenders transition back into the community,” the council said in its report. “They also can serve as a valuable resource to crime victims, who are eager for information concerning the offenders in their cases.”

But Sills noted parole officers are already overburdened, and the proposed additional offices are needed to handle existing more serious cases.

Deal also recommended $35.2 million for prison beds for “those who pose a threat to our citizens.” The governor also proposed spending $5.7 million to convert three pre-release centers to residential substance abuse centers.

Council’s recommendations

In its report, the council recommended expanding access to community treatment and programming options as an alternative to incarceration.

“Georgia struggles with a lack of community intervention resources, notably for substance abuse and mental health services,” the council stated in its report. “This means that judges have limited non-prison sentencing options to choose from.”

Also, the report noted long waiting periods for residential substance abuse programs and day reporting centers, which are not available statewide.

In addition, the governor proposed $10 million in next year’s budget for the creation of new accountability courts of drug, drunken driving, mental health and veterans. In its report, the council called for the creation of a statewide system of accountability courts that offer alternatives to incarceration.

Sheriffs noted the state’s dismantling of hospital facilities for prison inmates suffering from mental health issues already has left many county jails struggling with an influx of inmates who should be in a state hospital.

Monroe County Sheriff John Cary Bittick noted the state simply doesn’t have the infrastructure needed to handle inmates with mental health issues. And although he favors drug courts, the bottom line is if someone flunks out of Drug Court, that person will end up in the county jail.

Unlike Monroe County, Putnam County does not have a Drug Court, Sills said. Take this recommendation alone, and the county taxpayer will have to fund an additional sheriff’s deputy to staff the Drug Court, he said.

Also recommended by the council was creating different degrees of sentencing ranges for burglary by separating burglary of unoccupied structures such as tool sheds and barns from those of dwellings such as homes, whether occupied or not.

The council also recommended decriminalizing minor traffic offenses below four-point violations from misdemeanors to violations with civil fines. Some Municipal Courts already have expressed concern that decriminalizing removes the incentive for payment, said Rusi Patel, associate general counsel for the Georgia Municipal Association.

Noting that sheriffs agree that prisons are overcrowded and reform is needed, Deese said, “We’re just asking that they look at these recommendations very carefully.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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