County could test new program

By Billy Corriher

Under a bill unanimously approved by the state House of Representatives last week, Clayton County would operate a new pilot program to more efficiently deal with technical probation violators. The program is part of an effort to reduce overcrowding in jails and find more flexible methods of dealing with lesser offenders in Georgia, which has tough mandatory sentencing laws.

Instead of suspected parole violators spending weeks in jail waiting for a court hearing, the pilot program would allow a hearing from the county probation officer within 15 days of the suspected violation.

Clayton County Sheriff Stanley Tuggle said the program would not only reduce overcrowding, but would avoid having parole violators burden the court system.

"I don't think the judges really need to deal with these technical violators," he said. "The probation officer will address it in the right way."

If a probation officer determines that a violation has occurred, the violator could be sent to a probation detention center, substance abuse treatment facility, probation boot camp, or a probation diversion center. Less serious offenders could be ordered into a more intensive probation program or be fitted with electronic monitoring devices.

State Rep. Victor Hill, D-College Park, said he thinks the bill would do a lot to help with Georgia's overcrowded prisons.

"Ever since 1995, when the mandatory sentencing laws were passed, our prison population has doubled," he said.

Hill, who is also a Clayton County Police officer and a candidate for county sheriff, said the laws were passed with good intentions but are straining the prison system and its budget.

"There are no easy answers," he said. "This bill is a step in the right direction."

Hill said he also supports another House bill passed last week that will give judges more discretion in placing offenders under home confinement or restricting them to going to work by monitoring their movement with a device strapped to their body. Both bills are pending in the Senate.

Lawmakers said giving judges the option of using monitoring devices would also save money on incarceration and preserve bed space in jails. Hill and Tuggle said they supported giving judges the option, as long as it was reserved for offenders that aren't dangerous.

Joe Mack Eckler, a Clayton County police officer and a candidate for county sheriff, said he thinks judges should have more flexibility when dealing with lesser criminals.

"One-size-fits-all punishment is not going to cure our social ills," he said. "We've got all these drug users in jail that need to be in rehab."

Eckler said he approves of using monitoring devices for criminals that weren't convicted of robbing or harming anyone.

"The book is thrown at the wrong people so many times," he said. "We're filling up the jails with junkies."