Criminal justice reform has been a high priority in Georgia over the past few years, with some impressive results. Common-sense alternative sentencing policies have begun to ease the strain on overpopulated prisons and court caseloads.
If it has worked at the state level, why not try something similar closer to home?
Columbus has done just that. Back in the spring, a group attorneys, judges and others advocating something called the Rapid Resolution Initiative approached Columbus Council with the prediction that the program would not only help ease the population of the Muscogee County Jail, but could come close to paying for itself in the process. A yearly investment of $458,000, they estimated, would save about $440,000 in jail costs.
Council gave it a thumbs-up, and the Rapid Resolution Initiative officially began in July. The program is designed to do pretty much what its name says: It expedites the more straightforward cases through the process so a suspect or inmate can be freed, fined or transferred, if the case so warrants, rather than just languishing indefinitely (and expensively, and in some cases unjustly) in the jail.
The early results -- early as in less than half the year for which the city put up the money -- are beyond the most optimistic predictions. Council was told at this week's regular meeting that Rapid Resolution has already saved about $406,000 in direct jail costs, and an amount in jail medical costs to zero out the rest of what the city budgeted for the program.
Not surprisingly, it's getting stellar reviews from both sides of the criminal justice "aisle." District Attorney Julia Slater said one of the effects of the program's success has been greater efficiency in her office. In "victim cases," she said, quicker resolution means "if there is restitution that is owed, we can get an order on those cases."
Chief Assistant Public Defender Steve Craft, who along with Chief Superior Court Judge Gil McBride and others helped design the program, told council that in the four and a half months of operation, Rapid Resolution has dealt with almost 300 cases that were processed in an average of 43 days - less than one-fifth the time it would otherwise have taken. He estimated that Rapid Response has already saved Columbus the equivalent of 400 jail days, at more than $10 a day, times the number of cases.
It has also resulted in a Muscogee County Jail inmate population that has not been at maximum capacity since the program began.
The obvious (and legitimate) concern, as there always is with matters of crime and punishment, is the danger of a turnstile system more concerned with savings than with safety - or, as Craft put it, a "catch-and-release" program.
So far, he said, fewer than 1 percent of those processed through Rapid Resolution have come back into the system. Even with a small sample, that's an encouragingly small number.