One of the scariest facts about the United States is that our governments' rate of incarceration competes for the highest in the world. Why do I say, "competes for" rather than is? Because when a government forcibly keeps its citizens from leaving, one can argue, quite reasonably, that almost everyone in that country is a prisoner. I'm thinking specifically of North Korea and Cuba. But saying your government is better than that of North Korea's or Cuba's? That's a low bar.
Georgia is the latest example of a Republican-led state drive to replace tough-on-crime dictums of the 1990s with a more forgiving and nuanced set of laws. Leading the charge in states such as Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina and South Dakota are GOP lawmakers--and in most cases Republican governors--who once favored stiff prison terms aimed at driving down crime.
The conservative quest to rethink criminal sentencing and rewrite state penal codes got its start in Texas, when GOP lawmakers in 2007 balked at the need to build three new prisons to house an anticipated 17,000 more prisoners by 2012. They decided instead to revamp the state's probation system and boost funding for addiction treatment and rehabilitation by $241 million.
The state prison population has declined by nearly 6,000 inmates since 2008 after decades of rapid growth and during a time when the state's own population has continued to swell. In 2011, Texas shut a prison for the first time in state history.
In Gainesville [Georgia], 427 would-be felons have graduated from Judge Deal's drug court since it began nearly a decade ago. Each went through a two-year program of mandatory employment or schooling, frequent drug tests and group counseling. The program costs around $13 a day per person, compared with $50 a day to feed and house a state prisoner. After their release, nearly a third of state prisoners end up committing another crime. The recidivism rate among drug-court graduates is just 8%, a recent state audit found.
And, finally, the public choice aspect, with a quote from the son of a friend of mine:
Supporters of the changes in Georgia and other states note that elected officials such as Gov. Deal have done little to publicize their efforts, much less campaign on them.
Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, sees that as a missed opportunity. "This is an area where Republicans can really connect with black voters," he said.