The State of Georgia, led by Republican Governor Nathan Deal, has for the past several years demonstrated understanding and progress when it comes to criminal justice reform. With Georgia being the 10th largest state population-wise, but ranked fourth in the size of its prison population, it’s about time someone stepped up to the plate and tried to fix the criminal justice mess in this southern state.
Last week, while at the Marietta Kiwanis Club, Gov. Deal signed into law House Bill 349, which aims to improve public safety in a fiscally responsible way through criminal justice reform. Once sent to the floor, the bill was immediately passed by the General Assembly. The new law will allow judges to depart from stringent mandatory minimum guidelines in drug cases in which the defendant was not a ringleader, but a small-time participant. As Gov. Deal said, “Public safety will be improved by giving prosecutors leverage in certain cases and by ensuring that our prison resources are reserved for the ‘kingpins’ while the ‘mules’ are given a chance at reform.” The law also allows a departure from the mandatory minimums for non-drug offense cases when the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney agree that it is warranted.
This legislation also creates the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Commission, which improves upon the 2011 Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, formed to review sentencing and corrections data and make recommendations to the Governor and Georgia legislature. This commission has worked — and plans to continue working — with the Pew Center on the States to develop new, evidence-based policies for the future of Georgia criminal justice.
In 2012, the membership of this commission was expanded and juvenile justice was added to the list of subjects to be reviewed. This commission, in its new, expanded form, will comprise 15 appointees to be selected by Gov. Deal, 10 state officials, legislators from both houses, judges, law enforcement officers, and a criminal defense attorney, among others. In addition to this plethora of criminal justice experts, Gov. Deal will also appoint an additional 5 experts to the commission. According to OnlineAthens.com, “Commission members will be appointed for four-year terms and will review the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems at least every two years[.]”
The Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Commission, and its predecessor, the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, have made several recommendations to the Governor and the legislature over the past year. One such recommendation (H.B. 1176) resulted in a plan to save Georgian taxpayers $264 million over the next five years through reductions in prison construction and other “smart on crime” initiatives. This piece of legislation takes effect on July 1, 2013, and “establishes alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent drug and property offenders” and aims to save costly prison beds for “the most dangerous offenders,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
This plan allocates more than $12 million in funding for “accountability courts,” such as “DUI courts, drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts,” according to MDJonline.com. These courts aim to move non-violent criminal defendants, who tend to violate the law due to substance abuse issues, from an incarceration track to a treatment one, and give them a second chance before being thrust into the prison system. The “accountability courts” aim to save these select criminal defendants from the realities of the criminal justice system, which is astoundingly challenging to disengage oneself from after initiation.
These reforms to Georgia’s criminal justice system were heralded by both non-profit and governmental sectors. Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, stated, “This comprehensive new law reflects a bipartisan consensus about how to combat nonviolent crime . . . [It will] make communities safer and curb runaway corrections spending.” Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, a member of the commission, agreed. She said, “This is a very positive step, a great start . . . Hopefully moving forward we will look at other possible improvements to the criminal justice system that will benefit the citizens of this state.” The key, though, according to Hunstein, was “to monitor how effective this legislation is and whether we’re getting the desired results we want.”
State Representative Rich Golick of Smyrna, Georgia, the author of House Bill 349, had this to say, “Gov. Deal’s smart on crime vision on the issue of criminal justice reform will result in more state prison beds being occupied by violent criminals while creating more productive options for non-violent offenders, often drug offenders stuck in the death spiral of addiction.” He continued, “Increased Judicial discretion will ensure that sentences fit the crime, and local drug courts like the one we have in Cobb [County] will receive more resources and tools to be successful. Gov. Deal’s leadership on this common-sense conservative reform was the key ingredient in its success.” This is according to MDJonline.com.
The point of Rep. Golick’s statements of this being a conservative action can’t be understated. Gelb, of the Pew Center on the States, had this to say concerning the political landscape of prison reform. “Conservatives and liberals are getting to the same policy destination on this issue now, but they’re getting there by very different routes . . . And while for conservatives its limited government and fiscal discipline and individual responsibility, and also a good bit of family preservation and victim restitution and those kinds of concerns, liberals are thinking much more about social and economic and racial justice.” It really is a win-win for all involved; legislators, taxpayers, and criminal defendants alike.
Another area of concern has to do with juvenile criminal justice reform. According to Gov. Deal, it costs Georgian taxpayers $18,000 a year to incarcerate an adult state prisoner and an astounding $90,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile. According to Gov. Deal, “We are seeing more and more violent crimes being committed by individuals who are classified as juveniles, and yet we’re seeing our costs continue to rise.” This is most certainly unacceptable to Georgia taxpayers.
The juvenile justice mess doesn’t end there. According to MDJonline.com, “[O]ne out of every three adults paroled from the [Georgia] prison system is back in the system within three years, it’s one out of every two for juveniles.” Due to such significant numbers, which are a huge burden to Georgia taxpayers, Gov. Deal plans on bringing sister legislation to the H.B. 1176 this week which will reform juvenile criminal justice practices in Georgia. Over the next five years, his proposed juvenile reform legislation could save the Georgian taxpayers around $85 million.
Juvenile justice issues are a close one to Gov. Deal. Earlier in his career, he was a juvenile court judge. When talking about his time as a judge in juvenile court, Gov. Deal remarked, “[One of the] greatest frustrations was having only two choices in which to decide what to do with a juvenile who came before the court. They could be sent into a youth detention center or they could be sent back into the same high-risk environment from which they came . . . Neither of those, sometimes, were appropriate choices . . . This approach [the sister legislation to H.B. 1176] is to say if they are not a danger to society then let’s form local community-based alternative sentences. And that’s what we’re doing.” With such problems endemic, it is no wonder that these problematic decisions made an impact on him.
Jason Deal, the Governor’s son, is a superior court judge who oversees drug courts in Hall County and Dawson County. Recently, the Deal family attended the drug court program’s graduation. The event was a moving one, as indicated by Gov. Deal’s comments afterward. “To listen to the stories, to the lives that have been changed, the families who have been reunited and lives that have, quite frankly, been cast aside by the system that was in place, had a tremendous emotional effect on me.” In today’s political climate, a Governor who can admit as much is a man criminal justice reform advocates can most certainly rally around.