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Officials suggest solutions to overcrowding issue


The McDuffie Mirror talked to local law enforcement and judicial officials about ways to solve various overcrowding and sentencing issues.

Convicted criminals getting out of prison before their sentence is up may be something officials have gotten used to, but it's a problem they all agree needs some solutions.

Prison overcrowding has caused many a prisoner to gain early release in Georgia. The trouble is there's no easy way to fix a problem that's so deeply entrenched in the justice system today, officials said.

For Toombs Circuit Superior Court Judge Roger Dunaway, state-wide crack downs make parole decisions difficult for the executive branch of the government. But since there's not enough room to house them all, someone's got to go.

"We've sent a lot of people convicted of sales of drugs to prison, but they have to deal with all of the violent criminals that are coming in from across the state and just have to make a decision as to who they need to incarcerate more and longer," Judge Dunaway said.

Toombs Circuit District Attorney Dennis Sanders said maybe the prisons should be reserved for just the hardened, violent, "professional" criminals, not people with habitual misdemeanor offenses.

Along that vein, detention and diversion centers in every circuit could be the destination for those who have committed crimes like forgery or shoplifting and aren't a severe danger to society, he said. And local law enforcement could have some control over those centers.

"Let us be a little bit of a local pardon and parole board for the detention and diversion centers because we know who our bad guys are," Mr. Sanders said.

Those kinds of options aren't highly available for sentencing at this point, Judge Dunaway said. Plus, most are private facilities that criminals simply can't afford.

"It's a lack of alternatives too," Judge Dunaway said. "...We could use more drug treatment facilities and more mental health treatment facilities."

McDuffie County Sheriff's Department Maj. Ronnie Williamson said addressing the drug problem would help with habitual violators crowding prisons, but the cost of rehabilitation and preventative education is more expensive in the short term.

"We're looking at what we're going to do for our children and our children's children for society," Maj. Williamson said. "Do we want to keep going the way we're going, or do we want to try new innovative approaches that may work."

Judge Dunaway agrees. He realizes that everyone can't serve their full sentence until there are enough prisons and that politicians like to talk about how to fix it but won't talk about raising taxes to fund it.

"If we could educate people initially as to the problems of this and the hardship and the heartache it brings on, maybe we could steer a lot of people off of them," Judge Dunaway said. "So often we don't recognize the problem until there's been an outward manifestation of it."

So enters the age-old question: which should come first, the prevention or the punishment? Should the government focus on educating kids about the dangers of crime, or should it build more prisons to house the escalating number of criminals.

Mr. Sanders said there has to be a balance of both.

"You can't just ignore the prevention and the DARE programs and things of that nature," he said. "But neither can you ignore the responsibility on the other end."

He added that everyone with a stake in the judicial system should sit down and explore solutions, despite how those solutions might affect them at the polls. He said maximum penalties - a popular legislative move - could be reduced to alleviate prison overcrowding.

Talking to a group about the issue, Mr. Sanders threw out a tough question.

"I asked them point blank, I said 'Under the North Carolina statue and under the Federal statue that now exists, what would happen to Al Capone?'" he said. "They kind of said, 'In all honesty, he would have gotten probation.' Well, in every circuit, we've got an Al Capone."

Maj. Williamson said the long-term solution is simple, yet complicated at the same time. It starts at home and church, he said.

"I think a good strong family with good morals, good values and church values goes a long way to make good productive citizens in the community," Maj. Willamson said. "I really do think that's the key. I've been doing it for 30 years, and I think that's what's going to save us."

Web posted on Thursday, September 28, 2006

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