Reforms needed but will haunt local taxpayers

May 8, 2013 

Almost a year ago, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law H.B. 1176, titled the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Act. It was hailed by a variety of allies from the NAACP to the ACLU and the Pew Center on the States. Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States told Creative Loafing, “Georgia’s leaders have developed a landmark set of reforms that will make communities safer and curb runaway corrections spending.” The Center for Justice and the ACLU said Georgia took the “smart approach to criminal justice.”

The reforms are expected to save $264 million in prison spending over the next five years. The centerpiece of the reforms, developed by Deal’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, creates alternative sentencing for what are considered low-level, non-violent crimes, while reserving prison space for the worst of the worst.

To do that, the state did something akin to what hospitals do, it cost-shifted. In the hospital world, cost-shifting charges patients with good insurance more so they can afford to care for indigent patients. By upping the threshold of what were considered felonies, such as property theft, from $501 to $1,501 and shoplifting from $301 to $501, the state cost-shifted adjudication for what used to be felonies to misdemeanors paid for by local governments. The impact started to be felt three months after the law went into effect last July.

The cost-shift created a traffic jam in State Court, and it is having to hire a slew of people to handle a case load that already exceeds 13,000 a year in Bibb County. Though not the state’s fault, consolidation will add Municipal Court’s workload to State Court in January.

Another consideration, our jails have become the largest providers of mental health services in the state. Many of the former felonies are due to addictions and mental health issues. State facilities for handling that population are no longer available now that they are misdemeanors. Some of the people who need those services will be sitting in ill-equipped county jails or walking the streets. The legislation did include a new system of accountability courts (such as the Drug Court pioneered in Bibb County) using $11.6 million of the expected prison savings. Another $5.7 million will go into treatment programs for the addicted. Will that be enough?

A follow -up bill, H.B. 349 that gives judges more freedom from mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines also establishes the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Commission. The commission will periodically review the reforms to make sure they work and don’t have unanticipated consequences. One consequence is cost-shifting. Was it anticipated? It’s implausible to think that it wasn’t.

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