Georgia prison

An officer closes the entrance to cell block inside the Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison. Content Exchange

(The Center Square) – Judges and attorneys laid out ways Wednesday to reform the judicial system to reverse crime trends in Georgia.

A group of judges told the Senate Committee on Public Safety the state should provide data and technology upgrades, more pretrial supervision and better pay in the criminal justice system to combat crime.

Reports show an increase in crime across the state this year. Crime in Atlanta doubled in the spring, according to reports. Gov. Brian Kemp has directed $7 million to the issue over the past few months, and legislative leaders have called for additional funding to reduce crime.

The committee met Wednesday for its second meeting to discuss the trends and solutions. Lawmakers heard testimony at their last meeting from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Sheriffs' Association and the Georgia State Patrol. The law enforcement agencies called for more mandatory minimum sentencing. Cobb County Superior Court Judge Tain Kell said Wednesday the harsher sentencing laws were flawed policies.

"The era of mandatory minimum sentencing had its heyday in the '90s and lasted in Georgia until the adoption of the criminal justice reform act of 2011," Kell said. "I believe that it was a failed experiment, and I believe that the data upon which the reform acts was based bears this out."

Meanwhile, some jails are over capacity. Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Christopher Brasher said Fulton's jails are 600 inmates over the limit. The Fulton County Commission must decide whether to build a new jail, which could cost around $400 million, he said.

Brasher said supervising offenders while they await a court hearing has shown to be vital in reducing recidivism and packed jailhouses and prisons. Fulton is the only county that sets aside funding for pretrial supervision, Brasher said. The program offers offenders substance abuse and mental health treatment and referrals to other resources. He also said evidence-based programs and data tracking such as repeat-offender or violent-offender tracking systems also could curtail crime.

Pete Skandalakis, executive director of Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, said there is an imbalance in prosecutors and public defenders to offenders in the judicial system.

Skandalakis said the state should spend more money on recruiting and retaining prosecutors and public defenders. Many of the state-hired attorneys have been stuck on the same pay scale since the last recession, Skandalakis said, about 13 years ago. He said the current salary for a 10-year prosecutor in district attorneys' offices is around $70,000, while the starting salary for an associate in a private practice in Atlanta is $125,000.

"We're not saying pay us the same that you would be in private practice, but we're saying pay the people to keep professionals in the courtroom because you need that type of expertise to help you make those judgment decisions," he said.

Skandalakis said the first line of defense against crime is street patrol officers who can deter offenders before they commit the crimes.

"I don't know that we'll ever do away with crime, but we will certainly do something to make your streets safer," Skandalakis said. "Now, if you're looking for one magic bullet, I don't have a magic bullet about how we go about solving this issue. I can tell you this, if you want crime to come down, you invest in those patrol officers or state patrol officers, those people working the streets."

The Senate Public Safety Committee will hold a series of meetings to continue to look at the crime trends and to hear testimony from local governments, law enforcement and others in the community.

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