Vol. 1 No. 14                                                 Monday, August 2, 2021

This issue examines Georgia's high incarceration rate and an effort to reduce long probation sentences. 

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Georgia Has an Incarceration Problem

Georgia incarcerates and otherwise supervises a lot of people, more per capita than any other state. And it’s a big problem. We have more people per capita under government supervision, including those in federal and state prisons and jails and those on parole and probation, than any other state. We supervise 5,143 for every 100,000 of our state’s total population. The second highest state was Pennsylvania with 2,968 per 100,000 population. Of these under state supervision, we also have a high number serving long probation sentences. In ways big and small, we lock people up and then make it hard for them to reenter their communities when they have served their time. 

A closer look at probation: Currently approximately 200,000 Georgians are serving felony probation sentences, more than in any other state in the nation. After conviction, some of these people were sentenced to a number of years to serve in prison, and then more years on probation. Others may have received a sentence of only probation with no time in prison. Nonetheless, to be on probation means that you have to meet certain criteria such as reporting to a probation officer regularly, paying court ordered fines, fees or restitution, and not reoffending. 

The number of people on probation is high partly because of the lengthy probation sentences ordered. The national average length of probation sentences is around three years. Georgia’s average is six years. And 40 percent of those on probation have probation sentences of over 10 years, according to the Georgia Justice Project (GJP), a non-profit, criminal justice reform organization. 

Long probation sentences are problematic for a number of reasons. Not surprisingly, in Georgia around 50 percent of those on probation are Black, while Blacks make up only 32 percent of Georgia’s overall population. Long sentences of probation are also difficult for women and marginalized individuals and their families because of some of the requirements.

According to Doug Ammar, executive director for GJP, long probation sentences are not effective in preventing the formerly incarcerated from reoffending. “Studies show that it’s most likely for someone to reoffend in the first two years after leaving prison. Long probation sentences are not effective and actually make it harder for individuals to rebuild their lives after incarceration.”  

Long probation sentences actually increase the likelihood of re-incarceration. An individual on probation can be summarily sent back to prison not only for committing another crime, but merely for breaking a rule of probation, such as not reporting to their parole officer, or not paying the monthly fee required for being on probation.

A long probation sentence is a barrier to becoming a productive citizen in a number of significant ways. Landlords often refuse to rent to probationers, thinking they might reoffend, or be a bad credit risk. Employers are reluctant to hire those on probation, sometimes simply because the probationer might have to take off work to report regularly to his probation officer, which usually can only be done during standard business hours. 

Lastly, long probation sentences, as well as long prison sentences are costly to the state. The Department of Community Supervision spent $167 million for FY2020 for probation support. A helpful discussion of what the entire Georgia correctional system costs can be found here. And this more in depth article discusses some of these above points from a nation perspective. 

Some measures show that Georgia may be already beginning to reduce  long probation sentences. A recent report indicates that between 2000 and 2018, the average length of probation declined 49 percent in Georgia, which is a good trend. However, the number of people on probation percent increased 25 percent and new probation entries increased 156 percent.

Why are so many on probation? When former Governor Nathan Deal came into office in 2011, our state prison population had been growing dramatically under the harsher sentences championed in the prior decades, and the state was spending $1.2 billion annually on its prison system. This article summarizes the reforms implemented during the Deal administration to reduce the prison population and the cost of housing prisoners. But one consequence of this effort was to increase the number of people under probation supervision. Judges also began handing down more split sentences, that is a number of years to serve in prison and then additional years to serve on probation. But as the probation population grew, and more evidence emerged that long probation could be counter productive, lawmakers and criminal justice advocates began looking for other reforms.

Early termination: This past 2021 legislative session, SB 105 passed and was signed into law by Gov. Kemp. It outlines a path for some on probation to apply for early termination after serving three years of their probation. An individual must show that all court ordered restitution has been paid; that there has been no probation revocations in the last 2 years; and that no new arrests have occurred. The Department of Community Corrections (DCS), which administers the probation system, estimates that around 48,000 probationers are immediately eligible for early termination of probation.

DCS determines those who meet the criteria for the early termination process, and probation officers can submit an order to terminate an individual’s probation to the sentencing court. The court must grant the order unless the prosecutor or the judge requests a hearing within thirty days. If a hearing is requested, it must be set within ninety days.

“We’re finding that judges around the state are having mixed reactions to these first termination orders,” says Ammar. “Some are just signing them. Others are concerned that the probationer needs to be represented by counsel at hearings. And some are refusing to sign at all. So, we will have to engage in some education regarding this early termination process.” 

Georgia Senator Kim Jackson, a long-time advocate for criminal justice reform is pleased about the new early termination law. “It was easily the most important piece of criminal justice legislation that we passed this last session. For those eligible, this will give probationers something to work toward in the early months after release from incarceration and a level of freedom and opportunity to build back their lives. It’s certainly a step in the right direction.”

Farmer Followup: There is some good news from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Black farmers who are caught in the heirs property tangle that we reported on a few weeks ago. This Georgia Recorder article explains, “The program, called the Heirs’ Property Relending Program, was included in the 2018 Farm Bill but not implemented until this year. About $67 million has been set aside for the program, which will extend low-interest loans to farmers trying to resolve issues denying them a clear title to their land."

Reading: I’m just finishing When Justice Sleeps by Atlantan Stacey Abrams. It’s a real page-turner of a political mystery/thriller. Interestingly she used some names of real-life Georgians for a few of the characters. Did anyone else spot those?

Listening: I recommend an Ezra Klein podcast interviewing author Sarah Schulman about her book Let the Record Show: A History of ACT UP in New York. It’s an account of how the strategy of ACT UP was so successful. We can learn some lessons for today’s struggles. Listen wherever you get your podcasts or read a transcript here. And at the very end, Schulman recommends a book Memorial Drive by former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey.  This is a book, set mostly in Atlanta, which Schulman describes as “exquisitely written.” 

About the Author

Krista Brewer is a native Atlantan who has a professional background in writing, reporting and editing. For several decades she has closely followed Georgia politics, focusing on topics such as healthcare, voting and immigrant rights, and budget and environmental issues. She is active on Twitter and invites readers to follow her @KristaRBrewer
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