Georgia’s past legislative session was a bit of a mixed bag for criminal justice reform. While the General Assembly understandably had its hands full with other issues, like the pandemic, the legislature really only gave two justice reform bills serious consideration: SB 105 and HB 272.
After nearly going down to the wire, both the House and the Senate approved SB 105, which is designed to help expand access to the early termination of probation. Meanwhile, HB 272 was drafted to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18-years-old—as is the case in all but three states. It garnered some impassioned debate, but regrettably failed to reach the governor’s desk.
While both pieces of legislation are laudable and long overdue, the General Assembly needs to think even bigger on criminal justice reform and focus on our bloated jail and prison populations. Georgia demonstrates this need by having one of the highest incarceral rates in the country. Unfortunately, however, landmark justice reforms have largely fallen by the wayside in recent years, but the simmering pandemic served as a reminder that Georgia’s reliance on incarceration is highly problematic.
Throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been seemingly random viral outbreaks cropping up across the country—leading to hospitalizations and deaths. But time and again, jails and prisons have remained at the epicenter of the pandemic. Now with the coronavirus appearing to be on the retreat in the United States—thanks to unprecedented vaccination efforts—there’s plenty of room for cautious optimism, but it’s far too early to unfurl a mission accomplished banner.
New deadly and more contagious variants of COVID-19 have emerged and are ravaging other countries, and there are smoldering hot spots that officials are struggling to control right here in Georgia—particularly jails and prisons. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Detention centers are designed to house large, concentrated numbers of individuals—making social distancing difficult—and the facilities’ residents aren’t afforded the same healthcare or protective equipment that many Americans take for granted.
On any given day, roughly 100,000 people are behind bars in Georgia, but with facilities serving as dangerous breeding grounds for COVID-19, policymakers should want to reduce these populations safely. There are commonsense ways of doing so, while also producing valuable outcomes even beyond limiting COVID-19 exposure.
Georgia, like much of the country, largely relies on a cash bail system for those who have been arrested to encourage them to return for their court dates. Yet this system is incredibly flawed. It can punish those too poor to make bail in jail; the longer someone remains in jail, often the more likely they are to be rearrested; and it is expensive to house people in these detention centers. While Georgia has made some modest reforms to the cash bail system, it seems as though it’d be prudent to waive cash bail for those who don’t pose a public safety or a flight risk, which would improve public safety, reduce the associated taxpayer burden and make these COVID-19 hot spots less populated.
Along the same vein, they’re an untold number of Georgians in prison who aren’t a threat to others. Nearly half of all of those in prisons across the United States are there for nonviolent crimes, and 21 percent of Georgia’s prison population are behind bars for supervisory infractions. The latter are generally petty offenses for those under community supervision, including being late for a probation meeting or failing a drug test.
Rather than relying on incarceration, officials should explore further expanding the use of community supervision in lieu of prison time and ensure that minor supervisory infractions don’t unnecessarily result in imprisonment. While expensive—as is evident by the Georgia Department of Corrections’ budget of over a billion dollars a year—prison stays often don’t produce the desired results. In fact, recidivism rates among the formerly incarcerated remains far too high. Moreover, social distancing in detention centers appears difficult—if not impossible—at the current levels. Thus, it seems that many would be better served with sentences other than imprisonment.
The truth is that so long as people are incarcerated, the state must act as stewards for them, and society has a vested interest in securing their successful rehabilitation. During a pandemic, there’s little sense keeping so many people crowded into cramped correctional facilities in which infection rates remain at shocking levels, but even in times of normalcy, there are strong reasons for responsibly keeping fewer people behind bars. It reduces reoffense rates, costs the state far less taxpayer money and limits harm on arrestees.
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.