The first two phases of Gov. Nathan Deal’s overhaul of the criminal justice system will become law by next month. Now his office is working on a third part that could prove equally challenging: A better way to smooth the transition of inmates as they re-enter society.
Deal said he intends to work with community groups to craft legislation to ease the rehabilitation process for released inmates with the goal of reducing the stubbornly high recidivism rate, the rate at which they return to crime and incarceration. The plan could include funding for more job training for inmates and incentives for employers to hire them when they are released.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to lock up people when they were young and turn them loose 15 years later and expect them to be successful,” said Deal, who is a former prosecutor. “We will do better in trying to provide educational and skill opportunities for those individuals while they are incarcerated.”
The governor added, with a smile, “We can get their attention there.”
The work comes as Deal puts the finishing touches on a two-year effort to reserve expensive bed space in the adult and juvenile systems for the most violent offenders.
Last year’s legislation allowed Georgia to push more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from prison. It included diverting nonviolent offenders to demanding drug- and mental health-accountability courts.
On Thursday, the governor signed House Bill 349, which gives judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in some drug-related cases and others when prosecutors, defense lawyers and the judge all agree.
And next week, Deal is expected to sign similar legislation that’s aimed at keeping young offenders convicted of drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses out of juvenile lockups.
The details of Deal’s coming push to help released inmates are still being worked out. State Rep. Rich Golick, who chairs the House committee that could vet the legislation, said it’s likely to focus on nonviolent offenders.
“It’s the next natural and logical step after the two steps we’ve already undertaken,” said Golick, R-Smyrna.”The first two steps will pay dividends, but it will work better if we have avenues the individuals can take upon their release.”
The effort was welcomed by judges and attorneys frustrated that Georgia’s recidivism rate has remained relatively stable despite a massive increase in corrections spending. A 2011 study by the Pew Center on the States found that the recidivism rate here was more than 34 percent.
“This is the first time in 25 years we’ve seen significant changes and policy concerns about this issue,” said Doug Ammar, the executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, which provides legal defense, counseling and rehabilitation for clients. “I can’t tell you how pleased we are.”
The conversation shifted partly because Deal and his allies portrayed the criminal-justice measures as steps that would save Georgia hundreds of millions of dollars over five years. State Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs said the governor’s re-entry initiative could be another plan to help the state get more bang for its buck.
“We’ve been getting a horrible return on our corrections investments,” said Boggs, who who co-chaired Deal’s criminal-justice reform council. “We know what the success rate – or, better put, the failure rate – is: that about one in three Georgians released from prison will re-offend within three years. That’s unacceptable.”
It comes amid encouraging results for some efforts aimed at smoothing that transition. Almost 1,800 inmates served all of their prison sentences in 2012 and were released with no parole or probation supervision, Boggs said. State officials have set up transition centers to help inmates before they return to society, and Boggs said recidivism rates for those prisoners have dropped to about 25 percent.
“The transition concept is born out of a recognition that just locking them up and letting them out doesn’t necessarily work,” Boggs said. “What we’re all after here is safety in our communities.”
Advocates said the legislation Deal signed Thursday was an important move away from the tough-on-crime sentencing standards that offered judges and prosecutors little leeway. It includes a provision that makes it easier for people charged but not convicted of crimes to get their records cleaned. And it will allow some who were convicted of a misdemeanor before they were 21 to get those convictions erased from their records.
“It’s exciting to see Georgia join the growing ranks of states that recognize that one-size sentencing laws do not fit all offenders,” said Julie Stewart, president of the Washington-based Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “Gov. Deal and the bipartisan group of lawmakers who worked together to enact this new safety valve deserve a great deal of credit. This common-sense reform will keep Georgians safe and save money.”
As his office begins to craft the next phase of the overhaul, Deal has sought input from the 100 Black Men of Atlanta and other groups. The Rev. Raphael Warnock, who leads Ebenezer Baptist Church, said he was encouraged that the state was undergoing a shift toward being “smart on crime and not just hard on crime.”
“Most people who serve time end up coming back to our communities,” said Warnock. “People need a real chance to contribute to the community rather than victimize it. His call for us to partner with him in that effort shows how people on both sides of the aisle are rethinking the current system.”