This year’s Georgia legislative session didn’t make a lot of noise outside of Atlanta. But its echoes will be heard for decades to come.
That would be true if lawmakers had done nothing but pass House Bill 1176.
The new law profoundly changes how criminals will be handled in Georgia. In short, it attempts to reserve prison only for violent offenders and the worst property and drug criminals.
The rest of the brood will be funneled to a presumably increasing number of “drug and accountability” courts that feature stiff probation requirements and souped-up monitoring.
This is landmark legislation, folks. It’s a historic change in approach to handling public safety and its costs.
Officials hope the payoff is twofold: 1) the state will avoid millions of dollars in prison construction and inmate costs; and 2) nonviolent offenders will be less likely to re-offend or even become violent, as often happens when they are shipped off to prison to mingle with the inveterate pros.
Of course, the gamble is that community-based supervision of low-level offenders — probation, basically — will prove officials right.
Attorney General Sam Olens, who supports the law, acknowledges the $10 million in the package for new and expanded community-based programs isn’t enough.
This new law is a bold step toward a more proactive and cost-effective criminal justice system. But we’ve seen such steps before — in juvenile corrections, for instance, where the promise of community-based programs has been broken. Today, one insider told us, “We basically have nothing for any but the most violent offenders in juvenile court.”
When push comes to shove, lawmakers are loath to commit the kind of money such programs require.
This time, the stakes are exponentially higher.