Georgia taxpayers spend $1 billion a year locking up so many criminal offenders that the state has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. When it comes to overall criminal punishment, no state outdoes Georgia, says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Hard-nosed measures approved with wide public support forced a five-fold increase in corrections spending since 1985.
A monumental prison construction campaign that quadrupled space over the last four decades seemed like money well spent as record crime rates in the 1990s left Georgians fearful. Today, many public figures with strong anti-crime credentials are asking if that expenditure is smart, or even if it's making Georgians safer. The debate about crime and punishment, once clearly divided along party lines, is now a debate in which conservatives often lead the charge for change. As Georgia's dire budget outlook required lawmakers to make painful cuts, the Journal-Constitution investigated whether the state's gigantic corrections budget offered opportunities for savings. Many states, including tough-on-crime Texas, have concluded they can spend less and keep the public safer by sentencing some offenders to proven treatment and supervision programs outside of prison. “We have proven that we can be tough on crime and that we can spend $1.2 billion a year doing it,” said Brian Owens, the former parole officer who runs Georgia's prison system. “But I think it might be time to transition to being smart on crime.”