Home to the nation’s eighth-highest incarceration rate, the lack of comprehensive criminal justice reform has truly struck a chord right here in Georgia. From the inability to pay for bail and being forced to sit in jail under the supervision of the State for weeks and months at end, to having to serve time in jail because of the lack of financial resource to pay probation fees, tens of thousands of our neighbors languish due to an ineffective and inefficient criminal justice system.
1 in 13 adults are under some form of community supervision in our state, according to the Georgia Center for Opportunity. Georgia’s incarceration rate in 2011 was 1 in 70 adults behind bars – the fourth highest in the nation, and another 8 percent jump in the inmate population was predicted over the next five years.
In 2016 after a public push by Governor Nathan Deal to reform, we saw a decline in direct incarceration. What that translated to, however, was more people being put on probation in lieu of going to prison. At the end of 2015, there were close to 500,000 people on probation and in community supervision programs. That’s more than virtually any state in the country.
Even with due process, many who go before a judge in various courtrooms across the state are not adequately represented nor are they prepared to defend themselves. Either from lack of effective legal counsel or being able to hire a good attorney, probation or prison are the only two options they have.
An overwhelming 95% of cases end up with a plea of guilty, leaving defendants with criminal records and an obligation to pay attorney fees, court fees, restitution and probation/supervision fees. Sure, that’s their right to do so, to plea guilty. However with the risk of having to serve prison time if they don’t, it’s less likely that almost everyone who goes before a criminal judge is actually guilty of committing a crime.
These statistics reflect a troubling reality for a “pay to play” and “for-profit” criminal justice system. Like for profit prisons, state officials contract with private companies for the management of cases that require prolonged supervision. Probation officers are forced to manage several hundred cases, sometimes, at any given moment. Those who truly require supervision are not monitored as effectively as possible, due to the work overload, which in turn causes a public safety issue in its own right.
Our rate of 6,161 per 100,000 adults on probation is almost four times greater than the national average of 1,568 per 100,000 residents. And to make matters worse, we currently have pending legislation before the Georgia General Assembly that would increase mandatory minimum statutes for certain crimes. As history would conclude, mandatory minimums do not deter criminal behavior.
It is easy to suggest that criminal behavior needs to be addressed and public safety prioritized, however violent crime has historically declined over the last several decades. An overwhelming majority of the convictions today are for drug related and nonviolent offenses, and it is troubling to see the nature of a system that essentially destroys lives in such a way.
So it has to become a standard that legislation addresses actual crime, not behaviors, such as recreational marijuana smoking that may not represent a lifestyle that some leaders at the table find tolerable. To make matters worse, the same things that these leaders publicly criticize and shame, are the same behaviors that those leaders do behind closed doors.
With a felony conviction, people are not able to vote, receive federal grants for college or opening up a business, get a license to carry a firearm, nor are they able to sometimes get a job. That is disenfranchisement in the most basic of terms and is as antithetical to the values of democracy to which we hold dear as Americans.
We can not settle to celebrate an dishonest approach toward reform that simply seeks to restore rights that the same politicians and public officials took away from citizens that are supposed to be naturally endowed by The Creator. We have to remain consistent and advocate on behalf of those who remain the victims of a system that supposedly prioritizes public safety, only to disproportionately affect those who often are the only ones in the public, the poor and people of color.
We can support accountability of our citizens while also supporting equal protection under the law. In a real sense, this approach only strengthesn the public welfare of the State, as citizens who have paid their debt to society will be embraced by the laws of this land and the Constitution thereof.
For more information, I recommend “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.