September 8, 2013

Justice reform means fewer dollars for local jails

State rep hopes for fewer prisoners

Rachel Brown

— Changes in state law that were supposed to result in fewer people going to state prison have in many cases sent those same people to local jails, costing the local jails money because they are no longer receiving state funding for housing them, officials said.

State lawmakers passed criminal justice reform measures that took effect in July 2012 to heighten the requirements for several drug-related and theft-related offenses to be felonies. The intent was that less violent offenders would be sentenced to alternative accountability programs like drug courts or community service. The result — at least for now — is that many individuals are still being sent to jail, Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office officials said.

Only instead of serving sentences for felony convictions which typically carry at least a year behind bars in the state prison system, they’re in local jails for less than a year on misdemeanor charges. Sheriff’s Office Capt. Wes Lynch said county jails often house state inmates while they’re awaiting transfer to a larger prison facility. When they do, the state reimburses the jails at a rate of a little more than $20 per day for the $40 to $50 it costs to house one person daily.

The amount the county receives in reimbursements has steadily decreased since the law went into effect. In 2011, Whitfield County received $496,140 in state funding for inmate housing, compared to $260,237 in 2012. As of the end of June this year, the county had received just $47,929, records show.

“Less people are going to (state) prison, and we’re only able to bill for the people that actually go to prison,” Lynch said. “We’re housing prisoners that normally would be shipped off to the state.”

The county jail’s total budget is about $4.8 million, and while officials aren’t worried yet about how they’ll make ends meet, they’re noting the justice reform law has had a budget impact.

“Some of the violations that used to be served in state time are now being served locally in county time,” said Sheriff’s Office Maj. John Gibson. “We’re having to bear the burden.”

State Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, said that wasn’t the intended effect, but it’s occurring because the justice system is in transition.

“It’s going to take some time for the courts and for sentencing and for judges and for prosecutors to work their way into the new system,” Bethel said. “The real crux is we’re trying to reserve state prison cells for people who are dangerous, for people who are beyond rehabilitation ... and we’re trying to avoid incarceration when there are more sensible and more effective rehabilitation and deterrent models.”

He praised the Drug Court that Superior Court Judge Jack Partain runs in the Conasauga Judicial Circuit that includes Whitfield and Murray counties as a prime example. Putting someone addicted to drugs in prison doesn’t effectively address the problem, Bethel said, but accountability courts like Partain’s have been demonstrated to be a lot more successful.

In the prison system Georgia currently has, a high rate of individuals who are sentenced are back in the criminal justice system within three years of getting out of prison, he said.

“That is financially unsustainable, but just from a social standpoint, that’s an unsustainable model because it’s a revolving door of the prison,” Bethel said. “People aren’t actually seeing life changes ... There are other techniques that are being used that are more successful.”

Some funding for those alternative programs is available, but Bethel said it’s limited. Lynch said he isn’t at all against alternative programs, but the decreased funding is something local officials are having to deal with. Lynch said the average number of inmates at the county jail hasn’t changed since many of those people would be incarcerated there anyhow — only the state would pay for them to be there.

In Murray County, Sheriff Gary Langford, who took office in January, said he hasn’t noticed any significant changes because of the law. Murray County finance director Tommy Parker said that may be partly because the county is relatively small so any change in the number of state prisoners would be minor.

Parker said the county expects to receive about $50,000 for housing prisoners. That’s out of a $1.8 million budget for the jail, and an overall general budget for the county of about $15.3 million. Funding for inmate housing also runs a few months behind, he said, so any change could take a while to be noticed.

“They’re within budget,” he said, “so we haven’t been affected yet, but we’ll keep an eye on it.”

Elsewhere around the state, there are news reports of several counties experiencing budget dips similar to what Whitfield County is seeing. The Macon Telegraph reported earlier this year the reform bill included $11.6 million from the expected savings the state would see from paying to house fewer prisoners that would be designated for accountability courts plus another $5.7 million for addiction treatment programs.

Bethel acknowledged the funding is “not as robust as anyone would like,” but he hopes to see the programs grow.

“I think ultimately you’ll see more,” he said. “You’ll see more drug court and other addiction-based programs.”