Georgia has gotten national recognition for its criminal justice reform efforts in the last few years. Many of the changes have focused on low-level, nonviolent crimes. But reform advocates say Georgia still has one of the country's toughest sentencing statutes for some serious crimes.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh has been trying to figure out why the number of prison inmates serving life sentences is growing. She's a researcher with the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for criminal justice reforms.
"Sometimes people think if you threaten people with a very long sentence, that will help to deter crime,” Ghandnoosh said.
She said research shows otherwise. People committing serious crimes aren't usually thinking clearly, usually don't think they'll get caught, and rarely know the ins and outs of the sentencing laws that would apply to their crimes.
In Georgia anyone who gets a life sentence has to wait 30 years just sit down in front of a parole board. That's been the law for more than a decade. Ghandnoosh said that's one of the longest wait times in the country.
"30 years is an awfully long time. Most experts on parole say that parole considerations should not happen any later than 15 years," she said.
The report Ghandnoosh authored also points to Georgia’s “Seven Deadly Sins” law as a contributor to the growth in long sentences. When it comes to a group of seven serious felonies, Georgia has law that results in a life sentence without parole after two strikes, not three. Ghandnoosh called the measure the “toughest in the nation.”
State lawmakers take a big risk if they advocate for this part of the inmate population.
"These are very serious crimes. There's no doubt about it. But having policies shaped by just our emotional reaction is not going to prevent tragic crimes from happening in the first place," Ghandnoosh said.
She said the cost of keeping people in prison for long sentences can mean less investment in rehabilitation programs or other crime prevention.
Gov. Nathan Deal's office would not comment on whether the Criminal Justice Reform Council has looked into making recommendations on this issue. The Council’s report last year recommended a subcommittee look into the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences. A new report from the council is due out this month.