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PORTER: Safer communities and smarter spending

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Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter

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Scott Berry

As district attorney and sheriff, protecting public safety is the goal that drives us to serve our communities. Though we represent different parts of the justice system and very different areas of Georgia, our experience has taught us one common and critically important law enforcement lesson: We need to distinguish between those offenders who need to be locked up for the protection of society and those who can benefit from some other alternative.

Unfortunately, our current system doesn’t consistently make this distinction. So despite good intentions, we cycle thousands of lower-level offenders in and out through a revolving door. This doesn’t safeguard our neighborhoods and it’s a tremendous expense for taxpayers.

Our frustration with this costly pattern made us ready and willing to serve on the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform assembled by Gov. Nathan Deal. Together with other council members, we spent months focusing on Georgia’s juvenile justice in order to develop reforms for this vital front door of the system.

Despite our extensive experience, we were alarmed by some of the data that emerged. In Georgia, we spend an average of $91,126 per bed per year to house a youth in a Youth Development Campus. No, that’s not a typo: a youth who serves three years at a YDC costs taxpayers more than a quarter million dollars.

And what do we get for that exorbitant price? Nearly two-thirds of juveniles leaving these facilities reoffend within three years, even though many were nonviolent offenders and considered low risk when they entered. It is disturbing and, frankly, unacceptable to see such high taxpayer costs bring such disappointing results.

This situation demands action to improve public safety and control costs. During our council meetings, we developed a set of policy recommendations that we believe will stop wasteful spending and boost the chances that our young offenders will fulfill their promise to become successful, law-abiding adults. And the Special Council approved all of the proposals unanimously.

The recommendations are anchored in the belief that we need to do a better job determining which youth offenders really need to enter an expensive YDC and which ones can be effectively supervised in the community. To ensure taxpayer dollars make the greatest impact on public safety, the council recommended focusing the state’s out-of-home facilities on higher-risk, serious offenders. We then proposed using some of the savings, expected to total more than $80 million over five years, to create and strengthen evidence-based community programs for lower-risk youth.

As part of this strategy, the council recommended revising the state’s Designated Felony Act, which currently mandates one penalty range for nearly 30 crimes that vary widely in severity. We support the Council’s design of a two-tiered structure that continues to allow for restrictive custody in all felonies but adjusts sanctions to reflect the crime’s severity and the risk level of the offender.

This legislative session, our state representatives and senators are considering the council’s recommendations. We stand ready to assist throughout the process and look forward to passage of the full, comprehensive package of legislation. It will prioritize the use of our state’s limited resources and ensure spending yields the best possible results, both for public safety and the futures of young offenders, and their families and communities.

Danny Porter is the Gwinnett County district attorney and Scott Berry is the Oconee County sheriff.