HALL: Alternative means exist to punish nonviolent offenders

It is a sight that I have grown accustomed to over the years. Every morning at the courthouse, a parade of inmates all walking in tandem, are being shuffled to an area where they will wait for their next court appearance.

For some, it is their first visit in front of a judge. For most, it is simply the latest in a long line of court appearances that apparently has had little impact on their lives. At least that is what the statistics tell us. The rate of recidivism for those people who make this morning walk is astounding. And this endless series of revolving door inmates has put a serious financial strain on our state’s correctional institutes and is creating havoc.

A recent editorial piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has brought this issue back to the forefront, right smack dab in the middle of the Georgia General Assembly.

So what are we supposed to do? Do we just slap them on the hand and ask them not to commit any more crimes? Do we continue to lock them up and then release them, just to lock them up again in a few weeks or months?

These questions and more, particularly in these economic times, are calling for a serious look at how we manage our non-violent offenders in our state’s judicial system. We’re not talking about murderers, robbers, rapists, and child molesters, or others who participate in any violent crime here. There is not a reasonable substitution for their fate. We’re talking about people who commit crimes that do not have any element of violence involved.

These are people who take advantage of situations, or those whose crimes are only a peripheral part of their real problems. Their crimes are still something that we should take seriously, but conversations are now taking place about how they should be punished and dealt with.

The answer to this problem depends on who you are talking to. If you ask the guy who just had his checking account drained because of someone committing fraud against him, he may not be very sympathetic to whatever addiction or other purpose that had actually caused them to commit the crime. This is an example of a non-violent offense, but very offensive indeed to the victim.

Herein lies the problem. In a time of escalating crimes of this type, why should the victim need to care about some punishment that is less than the traditional approach to incarceration? Typically, I would agree. But in many cases, the cost of incarcerating non-violent offenders is costing the taxpayers more than what the original crimes would cost them.

Gov. Nathan Deal is quoted as saying that approximately $18,000 a year are spent to warehouse each inmate in the Georgia system. Overall, the state spends about $3 million per day on prisons. That recipe has reached a crucial point in a time where every dollar is being crunched for its most effective use. Apparently spending $18,000 per year on a petty thief to support a crack habit is no longer utilizing good financial due diligence of the taxpayer’s money.

So, the question remains, what do we do? Obviously we don’t just slap them on their hands. That works okay for a child, but I’m willing to bet that it will have little effect on this group of people. But as technology continues to evolve, we do have other options available that hold non-violent offenders accountable at a rate considerably lower than $18,000 per year.

Electronic surveillance has worked out many of the bugs since its early introduction into the criminal justice system and is working well in keeping up with those who wear such devices. It does not mean that some will not be creative enough to slip away from the device, but for the most part these flaws in the overall success of the system are manageable. Other resources, including increased monetary fines, required counseling and other forms of rehabilitation, are also far superior than they were just a few years ago.

Drug and mental health courts that deal specifically with those problems only have proven successful in preventing repeat offenders. These types of courts are still fairly new, but the results are promising. These and other ideas being explored allow us to have serious discussions about this issue without throwing the public out to the proverbial wolves. The old “locking them up and throwing away the key” system is one that we might like to continue but is no longer financially viable.

A successful correctional system is based on a series of gears turning, all succinctly, in order for the best possible results to occur. When those gears fall out of alignment and no longer turn in tandem with those around them, the system will fall into total lockdown. A little oil here and a little oil there, as it pertains to this conversation, is something that we must apply at this time to ensure that the system is allowed to continue with the least amount of friction necessary.

Stan Hall is director of Gwinnett County’s victim’s witness program. If you would like to have him speak at your next group event, send requests to shallbadgenotes@aol.com.