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Georgia Governor Enacts |Several Prison Reforms

ATLANTA (CN) - Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal enacted reforms that will reduce the state's prison population for non-violent offenders and help ease inmates' transitions from prison back into civilian life.

Georgia's prison population has doubled in the past two decades and now stands at about 56,000, according to the Justice Department.

This population explosion has been attributed to the state lawmakers' repeatedly passing legislation intended to "get tough on crime."

But that desire has come at a real cost a prison budget that has doubled over the same period and now stands at $1 billion a year.

And this, with a recidivism rate of 30 percent for adults and 65 percent for minors.

On April 27, Deal signed SB 367 in law, saying its provisions would make "great strides in reducing our recidivism rates, ensuring safer communities and expanding our accountability court system."

Deal, a former congressman, has made prison reform a centerpiece of administration since he was sworn in as governor in Jan. 2011.

Toward that end, Deal tasked a panel of experts to review the state's criminal justice system and identify focus areas especially in need of attention.

Based on those recommendations, Deal created accountability courts for non-violent offenders, an initiative his office says has enabled the state to avoid the need for 5,000 additional prison beds and saved taxpayers $264 million.

"The governor's first leg of criminal justice reform was to create accountability and mental health courts for non-violent offenders," Jen Talaber, Gov. Nathan Deal's Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications, told Courthouse News. "These courts have been successful and are continuing to expand throughout the state."

Other reformative initiatives include juvenile justice reforms, as well as re-entry programs, which aim to help smooth the transition from prison to civilian life (for example, earning a high school diploma in prison and jobs training programs).

"Along with restoring the original intent of the First Offender Act, this bill [SB 367] increases access to charter schools in our prison system and seeks to address the 'school to prison pipeline,'" Deal said. "If a minor enters the corrections system and is sent to a youth detention center, even just once, they are significantly more likely to offend again. We need to divert these children from a life of imprisonment and difficulty in order for them to lead a successful life."

The new law expands the authority of the accountability courts, restricts secure detention for most youths age 13 and under, adjusts public school disruption statutes so that students are appropriately handled through the disciplinary process rather than sent to a youth detention center or delinquent facility, and removes the lifetime ban on food stamp eligibility after a felony drug conviction, subject to the successful completion of their sentence and probation, among other provisions.

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