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Georgia Leads Push to Make Prisoners Serve More Time

Both the state House and Senate last week approved a plan to end parole. Other states crack down as well.

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Georgia is taking its get-tough-on-crime efforts to a new and controversial level by moving toward the abolishment of an American criminal justice tradition: parole.

To advocates of a constitutional amendment now before the Georgia General Assembly, the issue is simple. Prisoners who are sentenced to 30 years should serve 30 years. The penal system has become too lenient, they say, allowing crooks to return to the streets long before serving out their punishment.

"Any approach to curbing crime must have, as a component, keeping bad folks locked up," says former Georgia attorney general Mike Bowers, a Republican who is now running for governor."

Georgia's move fits into a pattern of state efforts to reduce crime and emphasize punishment over rehabilitation.

New York and Texas, for example, are looking at dismantling their parole boards or making violent offenders ineligible for parole. Many more states now have mandatory sentencing or truth-in-sentencing laws that reduce a judge's discretion in deciding how much time a criminal should spend behind bars. Minnesota lawmakers are discussing whether to give prisoners more time - after they have served their full sentences without parole - if they misbehave in prison.

But critics of Georgia's effort say that by eliminating parole, prisons will become even more overcrowded and taxpayers will have to pay for new prisons.

And historically, parole has worked as the rare carrot in a system based on sticks, parole advocates say.

Typically, a judge sentenced an offender to a range, from 20 to 40 years, for example, understanding that if the offender served 20 years justice would have been carried out. The extra 20 years in the sentence was to encourage an offender to behave, to take part in rehabilitative programs, and to follow the straight and narrow once released. But over time, that system has been misconstrued so that a prisoner sentenced to 20 to 40 years who only serves 20 years is often said to have served only half of his sentence.

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