The Georgia legislature is considering a bill that aims to reduce the number of inmates and save the state and local governments money by using some alternative punishments.
If approved, House Bill 1176 could have a significant affect on the Newton County jail and judicial system.
HB 1176 essentially says locking up non-violent criminals is too expensive and there are cheaper forms of punishment that don't cost nearly as much but are just as effective.
According to the 2011 Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, the state spends more than $1 billion a year on prisons and the cost of maintaining the current sentencing laws would require the state to spend in excess of $264 million more over the next five years.
Newton County had approximately 2,800 misdemeanor cases come through the jail at a daily cost of $45 a day per inmate, Sheriff Ezell Brown said in an email.
"Just one day alone would exceed $126,000 without medical expenses to house nonviolent offenders," Brown said.
The 75-page proposed bill proposes several changes, including new categories for burglary punishments.
The sternest of these are reserved for those committing burglary with a weapon, hurting someone during the burglary or committing the act "after sunset or before sunrise."
Currently, all burglaries are treated the same under state law. HB 1176 would allow for less stringent punishments for the burglary of non-dwelling structures.
The bill also proposes the felony threshold be raised for crimes like shoplifting and forgery.
"Increasing the threshold for nonviolent offenders, such as shoplifting from $300 to $1,000 and writing bad checks from $500 to $1,000, would take a large number of nonviolent inmates out of our system," Brown said.
HB 1176 also tackles punishment for illegal drugs. If approved, drug offenses would be weight-based, something that may cause a serious issue with testing at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation because it currently does not test weight on all drug cases.
Currently only those deemed a possible trafficking charge are considered as such.
Since the GBI does statewide testing, the new law could potentially overwhelm the agency.
"This will create a new sentencing range for drug possession. It will also help ease the cost associated with jailing substance abusers," Brown said. "This will allow us to reallocate dollars into creative, innovative law enforcement strategies, for example, the Offender Responsibility Life Courses at the Newton County jail. To date, we have saved over $1 million in collaborative efforts with the judicial system."
Currently, the law says a person found guilty of a felony for violating codes pertaining to a Schedule I or II narcotic "shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than two years nor more than 15 years."
Under the new bill, the law for the same offense would be as follows:
"If the aggregate weight, including any adulterant or diluent is less than one gram of a solid substance, less than one milliliter of a liquid substance, or if the substance is placed onto a secondary medium with a combined weight of less than one gram, by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years."
According to Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn, if passed, the bill would "have a big impact on sentencing."
Anthony Carter, the Chief Public Defender in the Alcovy Circuit, said he was in favor of the reforms.
"Too many people equate being tough on crime with warehousing all offenders in the prison system.
This approach is not only a waste of state funds, it does nothing to address the reasons the individuals ended up in the system in the first place," he said. "The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform is made up of a wide variety of legal professionals with different backgrounds and experiences.
"The council's conclusion is that the taxpayer's money would be better used by addressing the issues of substance abuse, mental health, and education rather than sinking more money into building additional prisons."
A team of 20 senior prosecutors convened to review the bill when it was first announced and make suggestions. Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon was one of the reviewers and said viewpoints vary among district attorneys.
"I am carefully reviewing the current version of HB 1176 and awaiting any revisions that might occur to the legislation after some of the recent committee hearings on the bill," Zon said. "There are concerns that have been expressed to the legislators with respect to the proposed amendments, particularly with respect to the burglary statute and ‘weight-based' drug prosecution model. I believe there will be changes to the final version of the legislation and I look forward to seeing the bill after those changes."
The proposed bill would also give judges and prosecutors more flexibility in sentencing.
"In general, I am in favor of maintaining discretion at the local level for the prosecutors and judges," Zon said. "In each case the facts and circumstances of the individual crime and the aggravating and mitigating circumstances are taken into account with respect to the appropriate punishment a defendant should receive. The revisions to this legislation will hopefully reflect an understanding of the importance of that discretion."