Too often, the road to prison is paved with good intentions

Proudly standing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, then-President George W. Bush announced that Operation Iraqi Freedom was a success — or “Mission Accomplished” as the banner read. It didn’t take long for the world to learn otherwise.

Similarly, as the sun set on former governor and justice-reformer Nathan Deal’s tenure, policymakers congratulated each other and crossed criminal justice reform off their to-do lists. Even today, when asked about future work in this area, some legislators privately respond, “We’ve already done justice reform.” But like Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the mission to reform Georgia’s criminal justice system is far from over.

Despite all of the state’s reforms, Georgia’s justice system is still in dire need of improvement. The Georgia Department of Corrections houses around 52,000 inmates in its prisons, and the state has the nation’s fourth highest incarceration rate per capita. Maintaining the prison apparatus isn’t cheap, either. It costs Georgia taxpayers around $1.2 billion a year — more than enough for Georgians to expect better outcomes. But the justice system remains dysfunctional. Indeed, many of the formerly incarcerated return to prison within a short time after their release.

So what’s driving Georgia’s colossal prison population and staggering recidivism rates? Are Georgians more prone to crime than other states’ residents? Perhaps, but the data suggest otherwise. The truth is that Georgia’s justice system suffers from a combination of issues — including how it deals with community supervision — that contributes to the state’s woes.

When individuals are convicted of crimes, they often are either sentenced to probation, imprisoned, or a combination of both. Others will serve custodial sentences and be released early on parole. While probation and parole, known collectively as “community supervision,” are intended to provide alternatives to in-custody sentences, they frequently act as a one-way ticket to incarceration — the proverbial pipeline to prison. That’s because a host of probation and parole violations, including minor infractions, can lead to people being locked up.

Some of these minor infractions, referred to as “technical violations,” include being late for a meeting with a probation/parole officer, falling behind on the fines and fees payment schedule, or simply missing curfew. Furthermore, the list of possible violations isn’t consistent for everyone. Sometimes it is tailored for individual cases, which can create confusion among probationers and parolees.

While some judges attempt to keep parolees and probationers out of prison, violations frequently lead to incarceration. In fact, people with supervisory violations account for 21% of Georgia’s prison population. Those with technical violations represent 4%. Admittedly, some serious infractions warrant corrective actions, but needlessly incarcerating individuals — especially for technical violations — is a waste of taxpayer dollars

Consider this: It costs around $66 a day to house someone in the state’s correctional facilities. This means taxpayers pay around $50 million a year to incarcerate individuals who have only committed minor, technical violations and over $260 million to house people who have committed any kind of supervisory violation.

What’s more, needlessly incarcerating people leads to more crime. The recidivism rate for former state prisoners is astounding. According to a recent study, they have an 83% re-arrest rate within nine years of release. There are many reasons for this, including prison’s negative psychological effects on inmates, the lack of effective rehabilitative programs, and the fact that inmates learn criminal behaviors in prison. By putting more people than necessary behind bars, we are only ensuring that more criminal activity takes place.

The bottom line is that due to prison’s high costs and tendency to increase the crime rate, it should be a last option. Georgia must do more to stem the flow of probationers and parolees down the pipeline to prison. Judges should be reticent to ship individuals to correctional facilities simply because they committed a victimless infraction, and the Legislature would also be wise to consider this matter. With over 400,000 Georgians on probation and 21,000 on parole, and a prison population projected to increase, the time to deal with this issue is now.

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