Pubdate: Sat, 24 Nov 2001
Source: Athens Banner-Herald (GA)
Copyright: 2001 Athens Newspapers Inc
Author: Doug Gross, Morris News Service
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


Georgia Moving To Non-traditional Ways Of Dealing With Inmates

ATLANTA -- Tucked in the corner of an industrial park, the Atlanta Day 
Reporting Center doesn't look much like it's run by the same folks who 
supervise Georgia's 38 state prisons. There are simple classrooms, a 
computer lab and several spots for individual and group counseling. 
Offenders sign in at the front office for sessions like last week's 
life-skills class when the discussion centered around what to do with the 
urge to call in sick to work.

The victims of these convicts weren't murdered or raped. They are the very 
people at the center for treatment. They are drug addicts. And without the 
program, most of them would have busted their probation and joined 
Georgia's 45,000 or so inmates behind bars.

"These folks don't pose a threat to the community and don't have new 
offenses," said Katrinka Glass, a former police and probation officer who 
runs the center. "They really don't belong in prison. They need treatment."

The center is part of Georgia's push to find alternatives to incarceration. 
Politicians in the state have never lost a vote by talking tough on crime. 
But even as they're adding more space in Georgia's traditional lock-ups, 
state leaders are pumping resources into new ways of dealing with 
lawbreakers who need more than probation but don't fit well in traditional 

"You've got to make sure you've got the hard beds to get the predators and 
hardened criminals off the streets for as long as it takes," said 
Department of Corrections spokesman Mike Light. "But we have to make sure 
our judges have more than a concrete-and-steel approach to criminal justice."

Last year, the department began what officials called a massive effort to 
add almost 3,600 beds in alternative facilities -- so-called "soft beds" in 
corrections lingo. That's in addition to 3,800 new "hard beds" in 
traditional prisons for violent criminals and other serious offenders.

The benefits, experts say, are threefold. First, non-violent, first-time 
drug offenders are able to get the kind of help they need.

"We talked to judges. We talked to prosecutors. We talked among ourselves," 
Light said. "Over and over we heard, 'If I had something else to do with 
him, I would have used it.' "

Secondly, the alternative facilities free up space for violent criminals in 
the rest of Georgia's crowded prison system -- the eighth-largest in the 

"One of our biggest concerns right now is certainty in sentencing ... so 
that we can be sure to have the bed space needed to keep violent criminals 
behind bars," said Gov. Roy Barnes, who appointed corrections Commissioner 
Jim Wetherington, a former police chief, as one of his first personnel 
moves in 1999.

And third, it's an effort to lighten the load on taxpayers, officials say. 
It costs about $18,000 a year to house a state inmate. Any program that 
keeps an offender out of prison, they say, helps trim the Department of 
Corrections' $887 million budget.

The Day Reporting Center, funded by a $500,000 federal grant, is considered 
a pilot program for the state. It's less than a year old, but if it works, 
the corrections, and Pardons and Paroles, departments would open similar 
sites throughout the state.

In addition to new trial programs, Georgia is turning in a big way to 
existing alternatives. That includes adding and expanding diversion centers 
- -- facilities where non-violent offenders pay rent and get counseling while 
going to off-site paying jobs during the day. There are 16 of the centers 
throughout the state, including facilities in Athens, Augusta, Savannah and 
Waycross. They're not a new idea; the oldest have been around since the 
1970s. But the state is showing a new commitment to the concept.

"(The Department of) Corrections is beginning to realize the kind of impact 
we have on these offenders," said Alvin Mitchell, supervisor of the Augusta 
Diversion Center since 1982. "It's a more cost-effective means than trying 
to send everybody to prison. "Everybody doesn't need to be locked up behind 
fences and bars."
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