Progressive Prosecution as a Solution to Georgia’s Incarceration Rate
Georgia has the fourth-highest prison incarceration rate in the country. In 2021, Georgia’s prison incarceration rate was 968 inmates per 100,000 people — well above the national average of 664 per 100,000. Furthermore, in both jail and prison incarceration, ethnic disparities can be observed, with Blacks and Latinos being overrepresented while Whites are underrepresented. On top of all of this, the upkeep of Georgia’s correctional system is not cheap. This year, Georgia’s Department of Correction operating budget is expected to cost $1.12 billion.
Traditional prosecution has strayed from enforcing the law, and has transitioned into a field where it is common to overload defendants with charges to coerce them into a guilty plea, prosecute minors as adults, and further the disproportionate conviction rate of people of color by adding gang charges to offenses. These factors that contribute towards mass criminalization and systematic racism in the justice system are issues progressive prosecution aims to address. Progressive prosecution looks to shift away from focusing on attaining convictions and long sentence lengths, and instead work on “resolving violent crimes rather than low-level drug, property, and ‘quality of life offenses’.
Across the country, multiple prosecutors have implemented progressive policies in an attempt to decrease incarceration rates. One example is Larry Krasner, who has made it his platform to reduce mass incarceration through progressive prosecution during his tenure as Philadelphia’s District Attorney. His enacted policies have included not seeking bail on a variety of low level offenses and seeking lower sentencing recommendations. Under Krasner, by 2018, sentencing lengths were reduced by 46% compared to 2014. Probation and parole lengths decreased by 53% under the same time period.
Athens, Georgia, where District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez was elected in 2020, has also taken steps towards progressive prosecution in an attempt to reduce the incarceration rate. On her first day, Deborah Gonzalez issued a memo detailing advancements the Athens justice department would be taking to in finding alternatives to incarceration. The memo proposed 40 changes in the way the Athens Office of the District Attorney would go forward in prosecution. These changes included not charging for simple possession of marijuana, only charging offenses that are intended to be prosecuted (so as to avoid overloading defendants with charges to push them towards a plea deal), recommending recognizance bonds for minor offenses, and pursuing sentence lengths that would reduce recidivism.
In 2021, 9.76% of the inmate population in Georgia were convicted on drug charges, amounting to 4,583 inmates. 25.05% of all Georgia inmates had sentences of 20 years and over. 16.21% of inmates had a life sentence, and 3.49% had life without parole. In total, these three categories make up nearly half the inmate population, coming in at 21,049 inmates. If Georgia is to see a significant reduction in its incarceration rate, it is imperative that it change the way that it seeks convictions with certain offenses and change the length of sentences. The endorsing of district attorneys with progressive platforms is a systematic solution that targets the root of the problem and offers a step forward in decreasing Georgia’s incarceration rate.