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Georgia's merry-go-round

POSTED: June 19, 2007 5:02 a.m.
Gov. Sonny Perdue seemed to be having such a good time with his budget veto pen last week, sticking it in the eye of the House leadership and several other groups not on especially friendly terms with His Excellency.
Smiling from ear to ear, Perdue whacked charter school funds, approved hefty sums for bass fishing, blotted out cash for mental health activities and handed out more raises for teachers.
He also performed a great good deed: He signed Sen. Jeff Chapman’s bill to protect Jekyll Island from ruination. It was whoopee time for Perdue. He looked so happy that he obviously didn’t hear the thunder just over the next hill.
Georgia is headed for a multibillion-dollar prison crisis. We are running out of bed space for bad guys. The Georgia inmate population is expanding at a high-speed clip  —  from 18,500 in 1987 to 37,000 in 1997 to 54,227 as of last week. And we have stopped building prisons.
Thanks to Georgia’s overall population increase, illegal drug trafficking and the state’s rigid “two strikes” law, no end to the growth is in sight. Local sheriffs complain they must sometimes house state inmates in local jails for months or even years, because state corrections facilities are too crowded.
Whether Georgia solves the problem is not an option. Experts say the federal courts could take charge of the prisons if something is not done soon. It has happened before.
 In the 1970s, federal Judge Anthony A. Alaimo of Brunswick was so shocked at the state of affairs at Reidsville State Prison he put the U.S. courts in charge of the entire prison system, a supervision that ended only in the 1990s.
More recently, Atlanta federal Judge Marvin Shoob took over the supervision of the Fulton County jail because of overcrowding and other sorry conditions.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hammered out a compromise plan in late April, persuading lawmakers to approve $8 billion for construction of 53,000 new inmate beds and to move 8,000 convicts to other states. Nobody seems happy with that plan, adopted under pressure from both state and federal courts to reduce overcrowding or face letting the lockups slide into receivership.
Georgia may soon confront a similar choice, yet there may be a better and less costly way to avoid the full impact of the calamity  — deal with the “revolving door” recidivism.
LaGrange businessman Charles D. Hudson was appointed to the Board of Corrections by Gov. Joe Harris in the 1980s and has been reappointed by every governor since. As chairman of the board in early 2006, he named a special committee headed by Madison attorney Rob Jones to study Georgia’s recidivism.
The rate of recidivism is defined as how many of those released are arrested and convicted again and who are back into state prisons within three years. That figure was at 27 percent in 2006 — meaning that more than one in four offenders is back in state jails within 36 months.
Corrections Commissioner James E. Donald says 70 percent of the recidivists are either using drugs, selling drugs or committing a crime in some kind of drug/alcohol stupor. Donald, who retired from the Army as a major general after 33 years of service, believes instituting drug treatment programs can slow the return rate.
Echoing Donald’s concerns, the board’s Hudson adds the recidivism could be cut with more treatment within corrections and continued on the outside.
“It’s going to take funding,” he says, “but imagine if we could cut that 27 percent by even 10 percent. It would more than pay for itself.”
Of course, a drug treatment program might be just the beginning. Georgia could still be required to take additional dramatic and expensive steps on a California scale to bring the problem under control. According to a 2004 Corrections survey, the Peach State’s merry-go-round prisons are one of the state’s major growth industries. Only Texas and California rank ahead of us in adding more inmates each year.  

(Hal Gulliver, an Atlanta attorney and former editor of the Atlanta Constitution, contributed to this column.)

Contact Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or E-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net
 

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