Mar 1, 2024 - News

Georgia prisons grow as tough-on-crime laws return

Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

Georgia's prison population grew by nearly 4.4% between last year and 2022, according to Georgia's corrections department — reflecting the impact of Georgia's return to tough-on-crime policies.

Why it matters: Gov. Brian Kemp's approach to addressing "the revolving door of criminal justice" diverges from the leadership of former Gov. Nathan Deal, who championed legislation to redirect nonviolent criminals into treatment centers to reserve prisons for violent offenders.

Catch up quick: Georgia's prison population more than doubled between 1990 and 2011, which is when Deal took office. Between 2012 and 2022, it fell by nearly 13%.

  • Deal expanded accountability courts, education and job training in prisons, reclassified some felonies as misdemeanors, and overhauled the juvenile justice system.
  • By the time Deal left office in 2019, the crime rate had fallen.
Change in prison populations, 2021 to 2022
Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

What we're watching: The Georgia General Assembly is considering legislation to greatly expand the list of crimes for prosecution under the state's RICO statute.

Threat level: Thaddeus Johnson, a Georgia State University criminal justice professor, says Georgia's proposed laws might jam up local systems if we see massive increases in arrests for these crimes.

  • But he says these laws won't lead to a bigger prison population, unless prosecutors deviate from previous practices and evoke RICO at a greater rate.

What's next: Corrections department spokesperson Joan Heath says Georgia is building a new state-of-the-art prison in Washington County to replace the county's existing facility. Georgia plans to spend $436.7 million to do so, the AJC reports.

  • Heath says the new prison will be tentatively completed in 2026, but they don't have any information on future plans for the older prison.

Zoom out: Nationwide, the prison population remains extremely high compared to the years before the Nixon-era "war on drugs" and "tough on crime" politics took hold, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick reports.

  • The U.S. prison population rose 2.1% between 2021 and 2022, marking "the first increase in the combined state and federal prison population in almost a decade," a recent Justice Department report found.
  • Georgia's prison population rose by 3% between 2021 and 2022, according to DOJ data.

Worthy of your time: Check out the AJC's investigative series into Georgia's prison system.

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