Plan for fewer felony charges worry midstate sheriffs

mlee@macon.comMarch 26, 2012 

ATLANTA -- It will be harder for law enforcement to make a felony case for certain nonviolent cases of drug possession, check forgery and theft under a bill moving quickly through the state Legislature.

House Bill 1176 aims to save the state money by putting fewer people in state prison. The problem, say some counties, is that offenders will instead end up overtaxing county jails.

The bill raises the amount of money or weight of drugs that divides a county lockup misdemeanor from a hard-time, state prison felony.

The bill is expected for a vote of the full Senate on Tuesday. The Senate’s presiding officer may decide to bar amendments.

This “will open up prison beds for our most serious cases,” says state Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, who is carrying the bill in the state Senate. According to the state Department of Corrections, Georgia’s prisons were at 107 percent capacity last year.

Some misdemeanor offenders will be diverted from jail to a so-called accountability court, which is an intensive, pre-trial intervention by a judge.

Those interventions aim to treat, rather than punish, a range of certain nonviolent offenders, usually those who are addicted to drugs or have a mental illness. Offenders undergo at least monthly meetings with a judge, random check-ins by officers and frequent drug tests.

Creating accountability courts and raising the bar for felonies, proponents say, will save the state money, first by shrinking the prison population. Second, an audit of Georgia’s existing accountability courts show them to be cheaper than prison and have cut the recidivism rate from 29 percent to 7 percent.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills agrees about the money, in a way.

“This will certainly save the state government money,” said Sills, “because all of the costs associated with punishment of misdemeanors are borne by the counties.”

Both Sills and Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena think the larger net for misdemeanors will capture more people that will have to be jailed by the county.

“I think it would cause overcrowding in bigger jails, including mine,” said Modena, adding that he and his staff are fighting every day to keep his 966-bed county jail from overcrowding. When he took office in 2001, Bibb County was under federal orders to do something about its severe jail overcrowding. The answer was eventually to build a $30 million jail.

But Hamrick thinks a few hundred dollars’ difference “will not capture that many people.”

True, it will take $1,000 in most shoplifting cases to earn a felony under the new bill, up from $500. But, Hamrick pointed out, it’s been years since that bar was raised. Besides, if the shoplifting is frequent or part of an organized shoplifting ring, the punishment is still a felony.

But there is no aggregated data that tells how many people statewide are arraigned for theft of items worth between $500 and $1,000. Those dollar amounts are only written in individual court files.

Hamrick argues that the felony changes are just a small part of the bill, saying “we believe the whole effort combined will help jails’ backlog.”

Modena praises drug and mental illness courts like those that serve Bibb County.

“Both of these take a good load off,” Modena said. “I’ve seen them work.”

About half of Georgia’s counties have an accountability court, which is far short of covering the whole state. Sills thinks that’s an opening for a constitutional challenge because arrests in different places for the same offense would not both have the same chance at an accountability court.

The budget for fiscal 2013 that looks likely to pass the state Legislature this week appropriates $11.6 million, most of it new, for accountability courts.

But “that’s just a drop in the bucket,” Modena said.

The overall effect of the bill, he predicted, will be to make Bibb County property owners pay the bill for holding more offenders. And he pointed out that the state leaves its prisoners in the county jail for weeks, sometimes months, paying only $22 per person per night, against Bibb’s cost of $55.

If the jail gets too full again, “the feds will come in” and demand changes, Modena said.

There is at least one saving in record-keeping because the legislative bill also seals up many arrest and court records, especially dismissals, acquittals and arrest records.

“Records of what takes place in public law enforcement and public courts should never be restricted,” argued Georgia Press Association counsel David E. Hudson in an e-mail. “While an individual is entitled to explain how or why he or she was exonerated, or completed probation, the fact that arrests were made and cases were processed in the criminal justice system are historical facts.”

Though the bill text has been under negotiation for months, the text was confirmed just last week. It was not subject to the usual journey through both House and Senate committees. Instead it came through a special joint committee and has already been approved by the House 164-1.

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