Researchers at UGA’s Rural Jails Research Hub analyzed data on prison admissions from seven rural counties scattered across the state, including Early, Greene, Habersham, Sumter, Decatur, Treutlen and Towns counties. According to the research center’s findings, between January 2019 and June 2020, nonviolent crime accounted for up to 93% of prison admissions. Motor vehicle and transportation-related charges were the most common charges, accounting for 38% of all prison sentences. These were “often due to unpaid fines resulting from driver’s license suspensions” and not to dangerous driving.
Another 18% of the charges related to drug offenses and about 14% to violations of probation or probation.
But while traffic, drug and probation were the most common reasons for jail time in five of the counties, total violent crime accounted for just over 7% of arrests during the period studied.
The study was limited to prison booking data and did not include data from probation authorities, so the researchers were unable to distinguish between felonies and probation violations.
“We can assume these are technical violations because they are not related to new charges,” said Jen Peirce, a researcher at the Vera Institute.
Some argue that the report should go deeper than prison bookings data to get a better picture of why nonviolent crimes lead to arrests and prison sentences. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said it was imperative to “investigate” to determine if the reason for an individual’s detention could be something other than the most recent charge against them. He said one must look holistically at the entire criminal history of people who have been incarcerated in prison, including their criminal records.
“They may not be there for a non-violent, petty crime. The reason they’re there could be the entirety of their criminal records,” he said.
The goals of the study, funded by a grant from the Vera Institute, were to collect administrative prison data to see how pre-trial decision-making, case processing, and surveillance practices affect prison inmates.
Peirce, who was among the researchers who authored the report, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that another part of the study’s goals is to reveal that “criminalizing poverty has consequences for people,” and noted that being sent to prison can result in financial hardship that is difficult to recover from.
A more in-depth analysis of Early, Greene, Habersham and Sumter counties, which had more specific data, found that probation violations ranged from 9% to 15% and violent charges ranged from 7% to 17%.
According to the Vera Institute report, Georgia has the highest rate of parolees in the country, with one in 19 adults in the state being on parole or parole. Peirce said the number of people on parole in the state increases the likelihood of violations.
“The path from parole violation back to prison is outstanding in Georgia compared to other parts of the country,” she said.
Efforts to enforce and fix probation violations pave the way for people to return to prison, Peirce said. She said when a person violates the terms of their parole, a parole officer uses their discretion and the tools at their disposal, including prison terms, to enforce the rules.
“Arrests for probation violations are primarily due to technical violations — such as missing an appointment, not paying a fee, or failing a drug test — and not to new criminal charges,” the report said.
Peirce said that made it unsurprising that parole violations emerged among the top three reasons for jail bookings in the four counties included in their deeper analysis.
“In addition, individuals booked for a probation violation stay in prison much longer than people booked for other types of charges — likely because of the prison sentence as a punishment for violating the conditions of probation,” the report said . “This means that even if probation violations account for a modest portion of prison admissions, individuals booked on those charges have an outsized impact on the average daily prison population.”
In their report, the researchers say their findings show that prison admissions are largely driven by lower-level crime, and there is room for policy changes that could regulate these types of crimes more effectively.
“Broadly speaking, these results suggest that incarceration in these seven rural Georgia counties is dominated by minor charges — such as drug possession and driver’s license suspension — and enforcement of probation violations,” the report said. “The public safety risks associated with these charges are small and do not require a prison sentence as a response.”
Researchers with Vera also examined prison data from Washington state and came to similar conclusions for that state’s rural prison system, with some variations based on state law and local conditions.