Georgia’s mandatory sentencing schemes cost taxpayers over a billion dollars a year

The Atlanta Journal Constitution (reporters Bill Rankin and Carrie Teegardin) recently penned an outstanding article on the ever-escalating cost of incarcerating people in Georgia. The statistics are disturbing.

Currently, one in 13 people are currently in custody, on parole or on probation. This statistic means that Georgia has a higher percentage of its residents under some form of criminal corrections than any other state in the nation. Already cash-strapped, Georgia now spends approximately $1.1 billion annually to lock people up.

Over the past three decades, Georgia has seen a steady increase in incarceration and in the length of prison sentences. While one in 13 Georgians are under some form of corrections, one in 70 Georgians are physically locked up in prison. That’s the fourth highest incarceration rate in the county. To put the numbers into perspective, Georgia has roughly the same number of people imprisoned as New York even though New York has twice the population.

The lengths of sentences have also increased from an average of 1.6 years in 1990 to 3.4 years today. We’re also spending more. We now spend five times the amount on corrections as we did in 1985. Part of this growth in spending is due to the rising cost of housing prisoners. Over the past 20 years, the cost to house the average prisoner rose from $28,800 to $61,000.

Other states have done much better, at a lower economic and societal cost. Texas, for example, spends $3 billion per year on prisons. The state had decided to focus on alternatives to prison such as probation, parole, drug courts and halfway houses. Many in Texas believe that these types of treatment and supervised programs drastically reduce cost and recidivism and keep the public safer.

Even slight cuts in prison sentences can make a big difference. Each day the average prisoner costs the state $49, but that same prisoner only costs $4.43 on parole. In Georgia, the crime of armed robbery carries a minimum sentence of ten years. If every convicted armed robber served their final year on parole, the state would save $50 million. That’s enough to pay for 1,000 new school teachers. Or, if the average prison sentence was reduced from 60 months to 55 months, Georgia could save $90 million annually.

Politically, reducing the number of prisoners and the length of prison sentences is never an easy sell. The idea, however, has gained traction across party lines. Even former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is calling for fundamental change by encouraging alternative programs that transform people’s behavior. David Ralston, Georgia’s Speaker of the House, has also stated that he is open to reform.

As Texas has learned, we can reduce the number of hardened criminals who are simply dumped onto the streets after serving long prison terms by reducing sentences and focusing on alternatives to prison. In turn, offenders have a greater likelihood of getting jobs, paying taxes and staying out of trouble. The result is a safer society, fewer prisons, and more funding for other state programs.

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