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Sentence reform measure gaining steam
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ATLANTA — Tough criminal sentencing laws that have left Georgia's prisons bursting at the seams and taxpayers footing a costly bill could be getting an overhaul.

Leaders from all three branches of state government — and both political parties — gathered at a Capitol news conference on Wednesday to back a study of sentencing reforms that would provide alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders and reduce prison costs.

Rep. Jay Neal, a LaFayette Republican, has introduced legislation to create a 10-member commission that would study the issue and make recommendations next year.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal said he supports alternative sentences for some drug addicts and other nonviolent offenders.

Georgia spends more than $1 billion a year on its corrections budget. A study by the Pew Center on the States found that one in 13 Georgians is in prison, on probation or on parole. That's the highest rate in the nation.

Deal cast the choice in stark financial terms: The state pays $3,800 a year to educate a child in public schools and $18,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate.

"The math simply does not work," Deal said.

"The cost is too high. The recidivism rates are too high and rehabilitation is too rare," he added.

For years, any move to soften criminal penalties was seen as politically risky in the conservative, law-and-order South. But exploding prison costs have hit recession-wracked state budgets hard and state officials are considering changes that once seemed unpalatable.

House Speaker David Ralston on Wednesday called the sentencing reforms "an idea whose time has come."

"For those who would say this is somehow being soft on crime, I say it is exercising sensible and responsible leadership," Ralston said.

Chief Justice Carol Hunstein stood with Deal, Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, underscoring the united front that leaders hope to project.

Earlier in the day, Hunstein tackled the issue in her annual State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the state Legislature.

"Rather than lock up drug addicts and the mentally ill, we must reserve our prison beds for our most serious criminals — those who commit violent crimes; those who commit crimes against children," she said.

Deal outlined his support for alternative sentences in his own State of the State address and said he supports the use of specialized courts, such as drug courts, to handle those who could benefit from rehabilitation rather than time behind bars.

About three-fourths of Georgia's prison population is believed to have had some kind of drug addiction, Deal said Wednesday.

Deal's son, Hall County Superior Judge Jason Deal, has served as a drug court judge.

Under Neal's legislation, the lieutenant governor and the House speaker would each make three appointments to the panel. Each would have to have make one of those appointments from the minority party. The governor would have two appointments. The chief justice of the Supreme Court could serve on the panel herself and also make an appointment.

The bill was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Sara Totonchi, head of the Southern Center for Human Rights, applauded the move toward alternative sentences, calling it a "smart and sensible move by our leaders toward a look at desperately-needed reforms."

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