Pubdate: Tue, 30 Dec 2003
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Jim Tharpe
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


Georgia's indigent defense system should be fully funded and mandatory
sentencing laws reconsidered when the state Legislature convenes next
month, a group of lawmakers, judges and civil rights advocates said

Presenting the findings of a Clark Atlanta University symposium on
criminal justice reform, the group called on state leaders to look at
alternative sentencing and drug treatment for nonviolent offenders,
who make up about 65 percent of Georgia's growing prison population.
The group also wanted legislators to review the "two strikes" law,
which sends all twice-convicted violent felons to prison for life.

The call to action was outlined at a state Capitol news conference,
where a dozen members of the group stood before a portrait of the Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr. that hangs outside the governor's office. State
Reps. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus) and Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) attended
the briefing and vowed to pursue the reforms when lawmakers return to
Atlanta on Jan. 12.

Key state officials have already thrown their support behind a new
public defender system, which is supposed to be in place by 2005.
However, lingering state budget problems could endanger funding for
the program.

Few state officials have been willing to back away from mandatory
sentencing, and there is little indication that will change this year,
when all state lawmakers are up for re-election. Georgia's current
"two strikes" law was passed during an election cycle in part because
its get-tough message played well with voters.

"I don't think that's going to go very far right now," state Rep. Alan
Powell (D-Hartwell) said of any proposal to do away with mandatory
sentencing. Powell, who chairs a criminal justice budget committee,
said during a phone interview that he had not seen the group's report.

Atlanta civil rights veteran Joseph Lowery told reporters the state
should invest more money in programs that treat inmates' drug problems
and provide them with marketable skills.

"It's much less expensive to make productive, taxpaying citizens out
of those who have been incarcerated than to do otherwise," he said.

The prison system is costing taxpayers more than $900 million per
year, one of the state's largest expenditures. The number of inmates
in Georgia prisons has more than doubled since 1992, to 47,000. But
the state's proposed budget for 2005 is equivalent to the budget of
1999, when the department housed 11,000 fewer inmates. Some lawmakers
have expressed concern that Georgia's tough sentencing laws will
continue to pack prisons and further drive up costs.

The Joseph Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights held an
October symposium at Clark Atlanta University that examined problems
in the criminal justice system and outlined proposed solutions. Lowery
said Monday that the current system often fails both taxpayers and

"And if costs continue to escalate at the present rate, we'll be
bankrupt in a decade or so," he said.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore, who
chaired the Clark Atlanta symposium, said the findings call for
community drug and mental health courts, transitional housing and job
placement for inmates and a moratorium on the death penalty.

''What we found is that there is a tremendous waste of human capital
in the state of Georgia as a result of criminal justice policy,'' the
judge said.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin