Valdosta prison inmate dies; homicide suspected

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ATLANTA — Budget cuts in the criminal justice system and public safety may lead to corrections facilities closures and more people behind bars.

To offset the ordered 14% cuts in Fiscal Year 2021 budgets, criminal justice and public safety agencies presented proposals to budget writers littered with furloughs, facility closures, program delays and scaled back services.

To save $21.6 million, the Georgia Department of Corrections suggests the state close six facilities, including Autry State Prison. Employees and inmates will be moved elsewhere.

Until final decisions are made and he can notify staff, Department Commissioner Timothy Ward said he prefers not publicly naming the facilities.

As facilities close, cuts to the state's accountability courts under the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council will send more people into the prison system, Hall County Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin, who chairs the state Council of Accountability Court Judges, said.

The statewide program creates alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders to reduce the incarcerated population but a $4.3 million-plus funding slash to the program will likely cause eight to 12 courts to close.

The council estimates the cut will block more than 1,900 participants from the program and a loss of $6.7 million in economic impact from the jobs it creates.

“Those people will likely end up in local jails or prisons, if they don’t have the opportunity to do this,” she said. “We also think it will disparately affect folks in rural courts and newer courts who will be hard pressed to find the money to make up the difference.”

The Department of Defense may realize a large chunk of its 14% cut by closing the Milledgeville Youth Challenge Academy, the department's newest youth program has been plagued with staffing hardships and the state’s lowest graduation rates, Adjunct General Thomas Carden told lawmakers Wednesday.

The closure will impact 54 full-time and two part-time staff, he said, adding the department will work to move to other programs.

“We’re not proud of it,” Carden said. “We’re not happy about it.”

At a time when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation his handling a case with national attention — the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, by white residents of Brunswick — Director Vic Reynolds said the freezing of 28 vacant sworn positions and three vacant non-sworn positions in the agency’s regional offices will limit the state law-enforcement agency's assistance to local police and sheriffs. 

The reduction puts field offices at below recommended staffing.

“We’ll probably have to be a little bit more circumspect in the cases that we do get involved in around the state,” he said. “It will probably lend itself more to violent crime, gang-related crime, human trafficking. I don’t envision in the future the bureau responding to assist in burglary calls or nonviolent property crimes or the things of that nature the way the situation is today.”

Georgia State Trooper Col. Gary Vowell said the law-enforcement agency “counted nickels and dimes and looked everywhere” but could not realize the full 14% cut without mandating 24 furlough days across all staff.

The agency also plans to delay its 110th State Trooper School until 2022 — which will save $1.4 million but means less troopers joining the Georgia State Patrol.

Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said he has “grave concern” about the furloughs keeping troopers from patrolling Georgia’s roads, saying the agency was “undermanned” before the pandemic.

For the state troopers, 81% of expenses are field operations.

“So every cut you make is taking someone off the road,” Sen Pro-Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainsville, said.

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