It’s interesting how, when the economy gets tough, common sense suddenly acquires bipartisan advocacy and the added virtue of affordability.
Back in the flush and heady ’90s, common sense all but vanished from the realm of criminal justice — or rather ( in fairness to those who didn’t make the rules but bore most of their effects ) from the politics of criminal justice. Money wasn’t a problem, long-term consequences be damned, and get-tough, jail-’em-’til-they-rot demagoguery carried the day.
The result was chest-beating political idiocy like two-strikes rules, mandatory minimum sentences and the like, most notably in the near-epidemic brain paralysis of the war on drugs.
Now, in the second decade of a new millennium, the legacy of that political frenzy is a seemingly bottomless economic and correctional swamp. Prisons are bursting, correctional costs are ballooning, and nobody believes we’re one whit safer. Georgia’s annual corrections spending now exceeds $1 billion a year, and budget analysts say if nothing changes, the state will have to come up with an extra $264 million over the next four years for — you guessed it — more prison space.
It should go without saying that crime demands strong and effectively deterrent punishment, and dangerous criminals need to be locked away. Public safety has to trump other considerations. But when we can no longer afford what isn’t working, then the public is obviously spending too much money for too little safety.
A Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, with bipartisan support and the strong backing of Gov. Nathan Deal, is considering some fundamental changes to be proposed in the coming session of the Georgia General Assembly.
Some of the proposals would involve significant up-front expenditures for long-term savings, like community-based drug courts and alternative sentencing centers for nonviolent offenders. Others would involve relatively little expense, like a sweeping revision of sentencing laws and something the council calls a “safety valve” for judges. It’s what, in a saner age, we called judicial discretion — the authority of a judge to impose a sentence based on the specific circumstances of a case, rather than on arbitrary guidelines imposed by posturing politicians 20 years ago.
“Having served as a trial judge,” said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, “I know there are really differences in the same kinds of crime when you look at the defendants and the facts of the crime.”
A comprehensive overhaul of Georgia’s criminal justice system could be a landmark legacy of this administration and this legislature. Concerns about being labeled “soft on crime” or about somebody else getting credit would be a pathetic excuse for doing nothing.