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Governor Deal’s Final Criminal Justice Reform Push

Last week, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal unveiled what is arguably his toughest criminal justice reform push yet, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When Governor Deal came into office in 2010, he quickly made clear that justice reinvestment was to be the cornerstone of his administration. He spoke about the crushing financial expense the state would bear if it continued its current sentencing trajectory and made a plea for humanity, stating “While we foresee this effort uncovering strategies that will save taxpayer dollars, we are first and foremost attacking the human costs of a society with too much crime, too many behind bars, too many children growing up without a much-needed parent and too many wasted lives.”

In 2011, Governor Deal created a Council on Criminal Justice Reform Council that was tasked to make recommendations of reforms that address the state’s unnecessary and counterproductive addiction to incarceration. Because of these reforms, the number of annual commitments to the Georgia Department of Corrections has fallen substantially. At the end of 2017, the state prison population stood at 52,962, which is nearly 12% less than the 60,000 projected to be incarcerated by 2018. In what seems to an unintended but positive consequence of criminal justice reform, the state has experienced a decline in the racial disparity in prison admissions. In 2009, 61% of people sent to prison were Black, compared to 52% of such prison admissions in 2017.

For the past seven years, the Council has enjoyed bipartisan support and the majority of its recommendations have been adopted by the General Assembly. A limited list of these enacted reforms includes:

• Sentencing reforms such as increasing the felony threshold for certain crimes and moving to weight-based drug sentencing;
• Expanding and allowing parole eligibility for certain crimes;
• Tackling the for-profit, predatory motives of private probation companies;
• Securing substantial juvenile justice reforms that mandate treatment in the community;
• Reducing barriers to reentry via ban the box initiatives and substantial appropriations towards education in facilities and reentry services upon release.

Last week, following the recommendations of the Council, Governor Deal put forth a proposal to give judges new flexibility in whether or not to require cash bail. The AJC reports:

“The legislation, Senate Bill 407, would let judges consider a defendant’s ability to pay in setting bail and give law enforcement officials more leeway to issue citations instead of criminal charges.

The legislation takes aim at a bail system that has come under increasing scrutiny in Georgia and across the nation. Civil rights groups claim jailing poor people simply because they lack money for bond is unconstitutional, and several lawsuits in Atlanta and elsewhere have challenged the practice.”

Under current law, the state gives judges little flexibility in determining whether or not to set cash bail for a defendant; it requires that cash bail be set in misdemeanor cases. Right now, more than 60% of people incarcerated in Georgia jails are awaiting trial, with many of them remaining behind bars simply because they could not afford to pay their bail amount.

Predictably, SB 407 is encountering resistance from some in law enforcement and the bail bond industry. “This governor has done more for those who perpetrate crime than Lucifer and his demons combined,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills wrote in a letter to the AJC, “and every piece of his criminal justice reform that has been passed into law has complicated or burdened our duties and/or endangered the citizenry of our state.”

Rep. Scott Turner was outraged by Sills’ remarks. “Are you serious? Because we treat people as human beings in the criminal justice system that we somehow are worse than Lucifer, than the devil?” he said. “That’s changing lives. That’s not worse than Satan.”

Deal is continuing the fight for a more just system, state-wide. “These common-sense reforms lay the foundation for a more equitable criminal justice system,” he said.

The report and proposed legislation comes just weeks after the Atlanta City Council unanimously voted to adopt an ordinance designed to eliminate cash bail for people accused of many minor offense and ordinance violations.