Historically, Georgia has been associated with a brutal corrections system ruled by tough-minded judges, but in 1981 the State stepped forward with a comprehensive plan to revolutionize criminal justice. Throughout the United States, incarceration was the most frequently used form of punishment, and Georgia was one of the first states to experience severe prison overcrowding. By the early 1980s, Georgia's resources to both maintain and construct adequate prison facilities were extremely strained. As a result, judges increased demands on the Georgia Probate Division by placing more serious offenders, who required stricter supervision, on probation. The public was also growing progressively more concerned about funding and support quickly intensified for exploration of community supervision alternatives for nonviolent serious offenders.
In 1981, the Georgia Department of Corrections set out to permanently alter the role of punishment in Georgia and to lead the nation in developing a comprehensive continuum of alternatives to incarceration. The development of this continuum is unique in its incremental arrangement of sentencing options with increasing degrees of punishment, control, supervision and offender services. Since more alternatives to incarceration are available, judges sentence a greater number of offenders to probation, saving tax dollars as well as individualizing the punitive process to fit the specific needs of the felon.
Offenders are assigned to a specific program based on a needs/risks scale of eighteen factors that determine the appropriate amount of surveillance, degree of rehabilitative treatment, and frequency of contact that is required for each individual. The most intensive program is the Special Alternative Incarceration, where young offenders are assigned to a rigorous 90-day sentence that is akin to military basic training. Diversion Centers are another intensive alternative where individuals live in supervised residential centers and are required to hold regular jobs to pay room and board. These centers provide counseling, life skills, and educational programs. Offenders could also be assigned to Intensive Probation Supervision (IPS) or Regular Probation. Both alternatives focus on employment and rehabilitation, but the Intensive Probation Supervision program demands greater contact and regulation.
The National Institute of Justice concluded that rates of recidivism were considerably lower among IPS participants than incarcerated individuals or those under regular probation. Most of these alternative programs require at least some community service involvement. Georgia probationers performed over 2.5 million hours of community service from July 1982 through July 1986.
The Alternatives to Incarceration program has won broad-based support both within Georgia and across the nation. The program's openness with the media and the public helped to cultivate this support. Judges and law enforcement officials praise options that are more restrictive than regular probation, while citizens and budget strategists commend the cost effectiveness of these alternatives. The percentage of felons sentenced to prison in Georgia decreased by ten percent, from 37 percent in July 1982 to 27 percent in July 1986.
During this period, 12,667 offenders, who would normally have been sentenced to the state prison system, avoided incarceration by being assigned to one of the continuum's alternatives. The state of Georgia has effectively established a powerful precedent for criminal justice. By providing a range of options that adequately address the needs of both the offenders and the community, judges no longer prefer incarceration sentences for nonviolent offenders.