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By Eric Stirgus January 25, 2012

Deal makes arresting claim about Georgia prisons

Crime may not pay, but it sure costs Georgia a lot of money.

In some cases, too much, says Gov. Nathan Deal.

During his second State of the State address earlier this month, Deal said Georgia has one of the biggest prison populations in the nation. Housing those prisoners costs money, which troubles state leaders as Georgia wades through an uncertain economy.

Still, Deal said far too many of these inmates are former Georgia inmates who are committing crimes and being sent back to prison.

"[H]istory has shown that offenders simply return to the prison population," the governor said. "Right now in Georgia, nearly one in three leaving our prisons are re-convicted within three years."

One in three are re-convicted within three years? We decided to fact-check this claim.

Criminal justice reform will be one of the top items on the menu for state lawmakers to chew on this legislative session. Georgia currently spends about $1 billion a year on corrections, state officials say. That is more than double the $492 million the state spent on correctional services in 1990. The growth in corrections spending is second behind Medicaid, state officials said. Many believe it is unsustainable.

During the past two decades, Georgia’s prison population has more than doubled to 56,000 inmates despite a decrease in crime rates in the past 10 years, according to a state report released in November.

"If current policies remain in place, analysis indicates that Georgia’s prison population will rise by another 8 percent to reach nearly 60,000 inmates by 2016, presenting the state with the need to spend an additional $264 million to expand capacity," the report said.

Last year, the Pew Center on the States released a widely reported study on recidivism rates. In 1999, nearly 17,000 people were released from Georgia state prisons, the study reported. Thirty-eight percent of those released were incarcerated again within three years, Pew found.

In 2004, about 19,000 men and women were released from state prisons in Georgia. About 35 percent of them were back in prison by 2007, Pew found.

Those numbers seemed dated, so PolitiFact Georgia searched for some more recent information. The Georgia Department of Corrections website’s most recent data is through fiscal year 2008. The recidivism rate within three years for state prisons, where the largest percentage of Georgia prisoners is held, was 27.5 percent, the state’s website says. The recidivism rate in most of the other categories of prisons ranged from 22 to 25 percent. Probation boot camps were the only types of prisons with a recidivism rate of one-third.

In Georgia, most of the people who were sent back to prison went for a technical violation, according to the Pew report. Georgia’s probation sentences -- about seven years -- are almost twice the national average, the state report found.

In 2010, state courts sent more than 5,000 lower-risk drug and property offenders to prison who had never been to prison before, accounting for 25 percent of all admissions, according to the state report. The state report suggested giving judges more sentencing options -- such as probation -- for low-level, nonviolent drug possession offenders -- which might reduce the recidivism rate.

"This option would reduce the growth of the prison population by approximately 300 to 900 additional beds," the state report said.

The Pew report on recidivism is more than one-third, which helps any argument that Deal would make that his statement is correct. The most recent state data shows the recidivism rate is slightly less than one-third.

The governor said in his speech that the rate was "nearly" one in three. We believe all of the numbers we saw support his statement. Our rating: True.

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Our Sources

Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2012 State of the State address

Georgia Department of Corrections recidivism rates, 2000-2008

Georgia special council report on criminal justice reform, November 2011

Pew Center on the States report on recidivism, April 2011

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Deal makes arresting claim about Georgia prisons

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