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By Eric Stirgus March 19, 2014

Georgia sentencing reforms pays off on budget, Deal says

The Great Recession forced many elected officials to rethink their approach to governing in some areas.

In Georgia, it has resulted in a philosophical change that has saved the state millions of dollars, Gov. Nathan Deal recently told one group.

Deal said the changes in criminal sentencing adopted in 2012 have helped Georgia’s bottom line by about $20 million. A PolitiFact Georgia reader saw an article that outlined the claim and asked us to check it out. We wanted to know whether the governor’s numbers were on target. Or should he be sentenced for faulty math?

The governor made the comments at a reception of graduates of the University of Georgia School of Public Affairs in Atlanta. Deal told the group he was surprised by the speed and size of the savings, Morris News Service reported.

"I was amazed at the dollar figures ... and amazed at the time frame," said Deal, a Republican.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said that in 2011 the state paid counties more than $23 million to house state inmates in county jails, some of which were overcrowded.

"In 2013, the payments were slightly under $3.2 million — approximately $20 million less!" Robinson wrote in one email.

In 2012, Deal, a former prosecutor, said Georgia needed more cost-effective criminal justice approaches that didn't compromise public safety. State lawmakers crafted legislation to establish alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent drug and property offenders. At the time, 60 percent of Georgia’s inmates were locked up for drug and property crimes, according to a state study.

Many elected officials across the country have employed a similar approach to balance their budgets in the post-recession world. In Georgia, the changes included reduced sentences for relatively minor crimes such as writing bad checks and burglary, and the state is diverting addicts to community supervision and treatment through so-called accountability courts instead of sending them through the normal criminal system and on to prison.

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State officials projected the package would save taxpayers $264 million in prison spending over the next five years.

The big change has been the state is spending less money on housing inmates in county jails because of a lack of space in Georgia prisons. Those inmates assigned to the county lockups typically work on roadway or construction projects for that county.

Georgia spends $20-$22 per day for each inmate in a county jail, records show.

Deal’s proposed budget offers statistics that support his claim. In Fiscal Year 2012 -- which began July 1, 2011, and ended June 30, 2012 -- the state’s subsidy to various counties to house its inmates was slightly more than $25 million. In Deal’s proposed budget, Georgia’s Department of Corrections projected it would pay about $4.6 million to counties. Deal recommended about $1.6 million.

Georgia’s Department of Corrections sent us several spreadsheets that also backed up the governor’s claim. In 2011, Deal’s first year in office, Georgia spent about $26.5 million to house state inmates in county jails. In 2013, the state paid counties nearly $3.8 million. That’s a $22.7 million difference.

Statistics show there are fewer Georgia prisoners in state and county lockups.

In March 2011, the average daily population in county jails awaiting a trip to state prison was nearly 5,000, Corrections Department figures show. Last week, there were just 611 inmates waiting to be transferred, the Corrections Department spreadsheets show. The average number of inmates sitting in state prison decreased by about 1,000 a day between 2011 and 2013. Another state report showed the year-round number of inmates had declined in the past two years from 40,648 to 35,111.

To sum up, Deal said Georgia has saved $20 million through changes in sentencing. State data show there has been a $20 million decrease in the amount of money spent housing state inmates in county jails.

We rate the governor's statement True.

Our Sources

Morris News Service, "Sentencing reform already produced $20 million savings," Feb. 26, 2014.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Governor to sign sweeping justice reform bill," May 3, 2012.

Email from Brian Robinson, spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, March 11, 2014.

Emails from Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan.

Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council Report, January 2014.

Georgia Department of Corrections average daily inmate population weblink.

Spreadsheet on county jail spending from Georgia Department of Corrections, March 13, 2014.

State of Georgia Fiscal Year 2015 proposed budget.

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Georgia sentencing reforms pays off on budget, Deal says

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