Not long ago, Georgia was widely considered the nation’s leader in criminal justice reform. Indeed, during Nathan Deal’s tenure as governor, the state adopted numerous bills aimed to lessen the prison population responsibly, while simultaneously reducing recidivism rates to protect the public.
All of this was sorely needed too, given that the Peach State had a historically bad criminal justice system. In 2007, a shocking one in 13 Georgians were under some form of correctional supervision; the Peach State had the fourth largest adult incarceration rate; and it was costing taxpayers a fortune.
Confronted with these realities, policymakers acted, but despite making great strides, the legislature’s job is only partially done. That’s because Georgia is still hamstrung by a flawed criminal justice system that doesn’t always serve taxpayers or those under supervision well. However, that may soon begin to change. While criminal justice reform has lately taken a backseat to other critical issues—understandably including the pandemic response—it appears that the General Assembly has an opportunity to continue improving the justice system.
Earlier this legislative session, State Sen. Brian Strickland (R-17) introduced SB 105 to reform the state’s probation system. If enacted, it would create “a unified process with clear criteria for early termination of felony probation that will make the previous reforms work, and will unlock opportunities for people to earn early termination after three years through good behavior,” according to the Georgia Justice Project.
Expanding access to early termination of probation—which is court-ordered community supervision—to individuals with certain felony convictions is vital, given the nature of Georgia’s system of probation. As it stands, around one in 19 adults in Georgia are on some form of probation. This is by far the highest rate in the country, and the average felony probation term is over six years—greatly outpacing the national average.
Probation is often a better alternative than prison time, considering that it permits those convicted of crimes to maintain a job in their community, remain with their families, and avoid many of the dangers and drawbacks of extended prison sentences. These include mental and physical health impacts and high re-offense rates. However, community supervision must be employed properly for it to be beneficial. Both unnecessarily long probation sentences and Georgia’s overreliance on probation have deleterious effects.
First of all, a bloated probation population stretches Georgia’s resources thin. In fact, probation “officer ratios for so-called low-risk offenders are five times the recommendations in some instances,” a 2016 WSBTV investigation found. Faced with Georgia’s growing probation population, probation officers are quite simply overwhelmed and cannot adequately perform their duties, which is a disservice to all parties.
Further, recent studies have demonstrated that extended probation terms do not lead to decreased recidivism. They are, however, more likely to lead to more technical violations, which are often minor compliance infractions. They include being late for a scheduled probationary meeting and can land probationers in serious trouble. Indeed, around 21 percent of Georgia’s incarcerated population are in prison for such supervisory violations. This serves as little more than a millstone around the neck of dutiful taxpayers as it swells our already large prison population and the corresponding costs; the Georgia Department of Corrections had a budget of around $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2020.
What’s more, lengthy probation terms can wreak havoc on individuals’ professional lives. It can be difficult to balance probation’s strict requirements, including regular check-ins, drug tests, etc., while also maintaining a consistent work schedule. In fact, many employers are likely to frown upon hiring someone serving a probation term for these reasons, but probationers need employment. After all, many are required to fund their own probation—although improvements have been made to provide financial relief to some of those who cannot afford to bankroll probation’s costs in Georgia.
Considering all of this, lawmakers should want fewer individuals on probation, and one of the most responsible methods of achieving this is to incentivize good behavior and rehabilitation, which is exactly what Sen. Strickland’s bill does. Such a system encourages improved conduct and even rewards it with early termination of probation. This would place a premium on rehabilitation, permit more Georgians to resume normal life, work toward the restoration of their rights and liberties, and limit unnecessary incarceration rates—saving taxpayers money. That sounds like a win-win situation.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.