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Trying for effective criminal justice reform
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The General Assembly passed criminal justice reform (HB 1176) in the 2012 legislative session to combat the increasing costs of housing inmates, as well as improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which was created in 2011, found that Georgia reserved a disproportionate number of its beds for nonviolent offenders. Not only did this reduce the number of prison beds for the most dangerous inmates, but has also been shown as ineffective in curbing recidivism in nonviolent offenders.

In 2013, the General Assembly passed HB 349, creating the Commission on Criminal Justice Reform, with a sunset of 10 years, to periodically review the effectiveness of the state criminal justice system, as well as give judges the option to waive mandatory sentences in drug trafficking cases for minor offenders.

Many of Georgia’s criminal sentences had not been updated since 1980, and these two pieces of legislation addressed concerns that the outdated laws contributed to a rising prison population, even as the crime rate was falling.

Reserving beds for violent offenders
To drive down the growing inmate population, HB 1176 sought to reform the way Georgia sentences offenders for property crimes and substance abuse crimes. Property crime and substance abuse offenders currently make up 32 percent of the state prison population. For burglary and theft, the bill lowers felony thresholds, which hadn’t been updated since 1980, and creates a tiered system that differentiates crimes by level of severity.

Previously, these crimes were all felonies, and it didn’t leave judges much choice but to sentence the offender to prison.

For drug offenses, HB 1176 creates a tiered penalty system based upon the amount of drugs the offender is charged with possessing, allowing judges to differentiate between those with chronic substance abuse problems. Community-based supervision and sentencing alternatives for these non-violent crimes not only help reserve prison space for high-risk offenders, but they also have been proven to reduce recidivism amongst non-violent offenders.

The state also instituted graduated sanctions for probationers who violate the terms of their probation. Instead of sending them to state prison, the judge has additional sentencing options including community service, probation detention centers, substance abuse programs, and more. The recently-passed HB 349 gives judges more flexibility in minimum sentencing options for a very small number of drug trafficking offenders, who were unaware of the amount of weight they were charged with, or had never previously been charged with a felony.

Substance abuse penalty tiers don’t come into full effect until July 1, 2014, to give law enforcement agencies time to implement the changes. Property crime penalty tiers went into effect on July 1, 2012.

Relying on evidence-based practices (EBPs)
The key, we are told, to successful criminal justice reform is the use of evidence-based practices (EBPs) to assess the risk of recidivism and determine proper treatment for each individual offender. Without properly assessing each offender, the possibility of reducing recidivism rates decreases and the shorter sentences of HB 1176 would just lead to a revolving door issue within state prisons.

EBPs are scientifically-proven methods used to treat mental health and substance abuse patients, as well as determining the risk of recidivism for each offender.

Under HB 1176 each offender is given an assessment that calculates his/her likelihood of recidivating, as well as outlining the best treatment plan for each individual. Basing sentencing and treatment plans on the individual, the use of EBPs is a proven way to reduce recidivism, as well as keeping low-risk offenders out of state prisons.

The state currently uses a proven actuarial risk assessment instrument named the Texas Christian University Drug Screen to assess the severity of substance abuse problems among offenders and ensure the proper placement for each new inmate.

Next week: The role of accountability courts and the savings of reform
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