Policy Not Budgets Should Drive Prison Reform

The Georgia General Assembly passed overwhelming House Bill 1176, and Governor Nathan Deal recently signed it, under the guise of “prison reform.”  While this is a good “first step” it falls short of being true prison reform in Georgia. HB 1176 is best labeled as a sentencing guideline reform measure. Since the “3 strikes and you’re out” movement of the 1990’s when states developed a “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality, the movement to keep “hardened criminals” locked up swept the country.

Now in rough economic times and tight state budgets, the chickens have come home to roost. We have “locked ‘em up,” but, now the question becomes, is it in our best interest as a state and society to “throw away the key?” The $1 Billion plus budget of the Department of Corrections sure is a tempting target for cutbacks. The DOC budget has grown consistently over the past 10 years. However, the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” still prevails because politicians don’t want to be seen as soft on crime.

In the new 2013 State Budget Book, the DOC budget has $35 Million plus earmarked for “private prisons” to add 2,650 new beds to the system – facilities that are run by private companies and not the state. Yet, the Transitions Centers, where inmates actually “transition” back into society by getting jobs, saving money to afford a place to live, only receives $3.1 Million. Relocating who manages the beds is not prison reform – it is outsourcing.

A short time ago, an associate who had been a “guest” with the Department of Corrections, discussed in an e-mail conversation his experience while incarcerated, specifically, what “rehabilitative services” he received. He noted, “There is no such thing as rehabilitation in the Georgia prison system. You are released back into society with a few dollars, a set of clothes and a pair of black tennis shoes.” He noted “Rehabilitation comes from within – you ‘rehab’ yourself and make plans for your future knowing that once you get on the other side of those gates you have no one to rely on but yourself.”

While one person’s experience isn’t necessarily an indictment against the whole prison system, it does highlight the limitations of a system unwilling to enact true reform. What if we spent that $35 million on creating more Transitional Centers, or job training programs? What if we gave the money to the Department of Labor’s TOP STEP program (a job placement program for released inmates) to help place individuals in meaningful jobs or for further job training – which TOP STEP does not currently do? What if we created a better incentive for employers to hire workers who have a felony arrest record than the current $2,500 tax credit – offsetting their salary for 6 months if the employer keeps the individual for one year or more?

A budget is nothing more than a reflection of our values and policy priorities. We all value public safety, now is the time to start a discussion on how to best reform our prison system based on “good policy.” For example, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is partnering with the Georgia Chapter of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill to conduct a study of on how to close the revolving door of county jails and prisons for the mentally ill. While there would be a cost savings to taxpayers, this is just good public policy not to mention common sense.