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Dr. Niaz Kasravi

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Georgia Takes the Lead in Smart Criminal Justice Reform

Posted: 07/05/2012 11:46 am

The July 4th holiday commemorates a pivotal moment in this nation's history - the end of a long fight for independence. Unfortunately, American history also tells us that the freedom and independence earned on that day was not shared by all. Even today, with the incarcerated population over 2.25 million, this country's "tough on crime" attitude has found more ways to reduce freedom while dedicating more money to policies that restrict education, mobility, and independence.

This past Sunday, the state of Georgia took a bold step in reforming its criminal justice system. The state implemented a package of new laws establishing alternatives to incarceration for low- level, non-violent offenders. It provides $10 million for "accountability courts" - drug courts that focus on keeping defendants employed, in treatment and sober. Finally, it creates new criminal categories to make punishment match the severity of a crime. These reforms are projected to save the state $264 million over the next five years.

The changes were supported by the Georgia NAACP, in line with recommendations in the national NAACP's 2011 report, Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate. The report shows how excessive spending on incarceration undermines our ability to invest in education. From 1987 - 2007, the United States' funding for higher education grew by 21 percent, while corrections funding grew by six times that amount. This nation spends billions each year to incarcerate people in prisons and jails, lock up young people in detention facilities, and keep 7.3 million people under watch on parole and probation.

Yet this colossal spending has not served to make us safer. Crime rates are still high. Drug addiction rates have persisted in most areas, while increasing in others. Most tellingly, recidivism has not decreased. Over incarceration is a waste of precious resources and a global example of misappropriation. The United States represent five percent of the world's population, but we house 25 percent of its prisoners - making us the world's number one incarcerator.

Georgia's sentencing reform package is a prime example of the potential for bipartisanship around this issue. Criminal justice reform is one of the rare issues that can bring together allies with diverse perspectives. This was on full display during the launch of Misplaced Priorities, when the NAACP stood by economically conservative leaders such as Newt Gingrich, the head of California's largest prison union CCPOA, and lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle.

Georgia's bill is part of a national movement for reform. In states around the country, legislators, community organizations, advocacy groups and experts are coming together to fix our broken criminal justice system. For example, the Pennsylvania NAACP is supporting similar efforts to implement "smart on crime" policies that will ultimately increase public safety, decrease prison populations, decrease prison spending, and free up public dollars that can more wisely be spent on education and other effective social programs.

Our nation has suffered from a bad case of misplaced priorities over the last several decades, setting too many children on the path to prison rather than to college. On this Independence Day, the NAACP will recommit to advocating for fair and effective criminal justice policies that will make all of our communities safer.
 
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