With the state in a budget crunch, some Georgia lawmakers are questioning tougher sentencing laws of the last decade. The Associated Press says legislators heard a budget briefing yesterday from prison officials, who outlined facility closings, layoffs, and furloughs proposed to help trim $69 million in the next fiscal year. Cuts would come from eliminating all counseling not mandated by law, prison libraries, eliminating all state-paid chaplains, and sending thousands of low-level offenders back to county jails. Some 15 state correction centers would be closed.
With the backing of former Governors Zell Miller and Roy Barnes, the legislature passed a “two-strikes” law requiring 10-year minimums for violent offenders, with a life-without-parole sentence for the second crime. That was followed by mandatory minimums for crimes dubbed the “seven deadly sins.” “We’ve created a monster of a system,” said Rep. Alan Powell (D-Hartwell).
One in 15 Georgians is in prison or on parole or probation, giving Georgia the nation’s fourth-highest incarceration rate. Georgia has more inmates serving life terms – 6,200 – than 13 states have total inmates.
Alan Adams of the state Department of Corrections warned that prisons will have to stop most rehabilitatation or training programs. “I’m not trying to sugarcoat this at all. There’s not a good side to this,” he said.
Lawmakers at the briefing called for a second look at sentence minimums. “We’ve taken a lot of discretion away from the judiciary,” Powell said. Other lawmakers fear that overcrowded prisons will put employees in danger. Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) wondered about the point of imprisoning people if there’s no money to give them job skills or drug counseling, important elements in preventing repeat criminality.