Hundreds Kept Imprisoned in Georgia Despite Serving Their Sentences

Published February 7, 2012

Georgia penitentiaries continue to feed, clothe, and pay medical expenses for hundreds of inmates who were approved for parole but cannot be released because they have nowhere to live. About two-thirds are convicted sex offenders. About one-third require mental illness treatment but are otherwise not considered a threat to public safety.

“We have got to do something about the housing situation, about the need for these individuals to have stable housing in order to be able to assimilate back into communities,” state Rep. Jay Neal (R-Lafayette) said during a recent hearing in which testimony was heard from officials at the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, State Department of Community Affairs, the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office, and Support Housing Atlanta.

Having nowhere to go means inmates approved for parole have no family able or willing to take them and no publicly supported housing facility willing to accept them. One of the challenges of Georgia corrections reform is where released inmates are to go when they leave prisons.

The 2011 state Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform delivered its report before Thanksgiving. It emphasized establishing alternatives to incarceration to reduce budget-devouring prison system costs. The new Legislature has been in session since January. The committee that will turn the special council recommendations into a bill is currently drafting the legislation.

More Millions for Prison Beds

Gov. Nathan Deal (R) outlined his criminal justice reform priorities in his State of the State address and his proposed FY 2013 budget: $35.2 million for additional prison beds, $10 million for accountability courts expansion, $5.7 million to convert three pre-release centers to residential substance abuse treatment centers, and $1.4 million to fund additional parole officers.

Moving away from a strategy that emphasized incarceration to one focused on alternative treatment for nonviolent persons who do not pose any public safety threat means the state criminal justice system must change the tools it uses. Beds would be reserved for dangerous individuals. People who need treatment more than incarceration would be placed in community settings.

A House committee met for 90 minutes during the week of Jan. 30 to discuss the lack of available housing statewide for paroled inmates. State Parole Director Michael Nail told the committee Georgia currently has 367 former sex offenders and 147 people with treatable mental illness needs who are still locked up even though they served all required time and were approved for release from the prison system.

‘Two Years Beyond Parole Date’

How long might they stay locked up? Most inmates are freed within 30 to 45 days after the parole board grants release. That is not the case for hard-to-release inmates.

Nail said, “We’ve had inmates that have been there two years beyond their parole date simply because they have nowhere to go.”

Patients who require mental health treatment are a special challenge. The means employed to help them go beyond the criminal justice system. Georgia and the federal government entered into an October 2010 consent decree requiring the state to transfer mental illness patients out of hospitals and into community settings. The state must be equipped to deal with 9,000 persons released from hospitals on a strict timetable concluding no later than July 1, 2015.

Twenty Percent Immediately Homeless

Paul Bolster is director of Support Housing Atlanta, which conducted a survey of mental health patients being held in several metropolitan area county jails. Bolster said inmates were asked where they would live if they were released. Twenty percent said they would be immediately homeless, and 12 percent more said they did not know.

“Thirty-five hundred people with serious mental illness will be discharged from metro jails within a year’s time to, probably, homelessness,” Bolster told the House committee. “This explains why you have recidivism.”

The survey was conducted in Cobb, Gwinnett, and DeKalb County jails, and statistics were incorporated from Fulton County.

Millions for Medicine

Clayton is Georgia’s third-smallest county by land mass, but it has the state’s fifth-largest population. Last year the county processed 26,000 prisoners. Those inmates consume between $7 million to $8 million annually in medicine and other health care expenses. About 900 of the jail’s 1,700-capacity prisoners require mental health services, and between 300 and 400 require intensive mental health treatment.

Sheriff Kemuel Kimbrough said those services could be provided at less expense outside a jail setting.

Kimbrough’s varied assignments have included work on the implementation of mental health community service boards, and he holds an Emory University law degree.

“We’re spending god-awful amounts of money to keep them behind bars when the reality is we could probably spend less to support them in treatment, support them in housing, get them back out into the community and maybe even rehabilitate them into quality citizens,” said Kimbrough.

“We could have up to 300 folks that would meet drug court parameters but for one component, one very key factor: that they have stable residential housing outside the jail,” Kimbrough said. “That is the number one thing that gets them knocked out. If they don’t have a place to stay that is stable, then they are not eligible for the drug court program.”

Mike Klein ([email protected]) is editor of the Forum Blog of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, where a version of this first appeared. Used with permission.