As Georgia begins the final stretch to find a new occupant of the Governor’s Mansion, a look back at the accomplishments of its current occupant is in order. Perhaps none have been as transformational if not also a bit surprising as Gov. Nathan Deal’s commitment to criminal justice reform.
For decades under both parties, politicians in Georgia couldn’t go wrong running on a “tough on crime” platform. When “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing mandates were popular nationally, Zell Miller topped them with “two strikes and you’re out.”
Crime rates fell, but prison population swelled. A lack of effective rehabilitation programs combined with few opportunities for individuals exiting prison created high recidivism rates. Mistakes made during youth often meant a virtual life sentence, broken up into a pattern of increasing severity of charges and longer periods of incarceration.
Deal’s ads during the 2010 race didn’t feature criminal justice reform as a central theme. It was understandable. No one wanted to be branded “soft on crime”, and the concept of criminal justice reform sounded too much like something Michael Dukakis would have tried in Massachusetts, not something a governor – certainly not a Republican – would try in Georgia.
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And yet, before he was a governor or congressman, Nathan Deal was a prosecutor, a Juvenile Court judge, and a Superior Court judge. He understands this system. As governor, he was in a position to make changes. Eight years later, using more scalpel than chain saw, Georgia’s system is reformed, and the results can be measured.
Are the results “soft on crime?” The numbers say no. The focus has been differentiating from minor crimes combined with alternative sentencing, combined with focused efforts on rehabilitation and re-entry. Violent crime remains violent crime.
Statistics show this to be true. Despite the GBI showing violent crime is down 10 percent from 2010 to 2017, the percentage of criminals in Georgia prisons serving time for violent crimes is up, rising from 58 to 68 percent. The pipeline to prison from those committing non-violent crimes has been greatly reduced, with the increased use of alternative sentencing and lower rates of recidivism.
In 2013, Georgia overhauled its juvenile justice system implementing alternative sentencing using evidence based practices. Recidivism in the juvenile justice system is down by one third.
Georgia has also expanded the use of alternative courts, with judges set to specifically oversee drug, DUI, mental health, family treatment, veterans and other issues with specific focus. The recidivism rate for those who successfully graduate from one of Georgia’s Accountability Court programs is just 2 percent. According to UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute, alternative courts have already created a $38.2 million annual benefit to the state.
Overall, the number of people sentenced to Georgia’s prisons have dropped 19 percent from 2009 to 2017. The backlog of prisoners in county jails awaiting transfer to a Georgia prison has been eliminated. This alone has cut out a $25 million annual expense from the state to counties to house state prisoners.
Between 1990 and 2011, Georgia’s prison population had more than doubled, with the costs of operating Georgia’s prisons rising from $492 million to more than $1 billion annually. Projections were that Georgia would need to build more prisons immediately.
Instead, there are fewer people in Georgia prisons today than there were 7 years ago. Fewer people released from prison are coming back as more are successfully re-entering the work place. And, overall, crime rates are coming down.
Deal’s approach has been methodical and systematic. He understands the politics of the issue, but he also understands the economics – as governors who have to balance a budget every year usually do.
In the end, he’s made it look relatively easy and filled with common sense. Punish the violent and separate them from society. But for those that screw up and need a firm yet guiding hand, there are better and cheaper ways to hold them accountable while investing in their ability to make better choices.