Georgia’s prison population and costs are exploding as the state faces its worst financial crunch in decades, says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. State prison populations across the country have leveled off, and even dropped in Illinois, Texas, California and New York, Georgia’s continues to skyrocket. In May, it reached 50,922, breaking the 50,000 mark for the first time. State officials project the number will reach 56,000 to 58,000 by the summer of 2007.
A combination of new mandatory sentencing laws and longer terms for all types of offenses is helping drive up the numbers. Georgia has the sixth highest incarceration rate among the 50 states and ranks first in the percentage of people in prison, on probation, or on parole.
The state Department of Corrections will spend nearly $1 billion this year. In the five-year span from 1998 to 2002, its budget rose by 31 percent. “I think we’ve got about as many people locked up as we can afford,” said state Rep. Tom Bordeaux (D-Savannah), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “We need to act smarter, not harsher, toward criminal behavior.”
In December, a 19-member commission recommended reducing prison time for nonviolent drug and property crimes while increasing terms for violent and sex offenders. The Governor’s Commission on Certainty in Sentencing was made up of justice system professionals from across the state. Under the commission proposal, the prison population would continue to grow, but only about half as fast as currently projected. Dug possession cases make up 17 percent of prison admissions. Under the plan, possession would drop to 4 percent of admissions.
In January, Gov. Sonny Perdue suggested to the state’s 188 Superior Court judges that they use the commission’s guidelines in sentencing. Perdue’s administration then disbanded the commission, which former Gov. Roy Barnes had created by executive order.