Gov. Nathan Deal focused much of his legislative agenda the past two years on changes that push nonviolent offenders away from prison and toward alternative programs. Now he has unveiled the third phase of a plan to smooth the transition of released offenders back into society.
The governor said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he backs legislative proposals that would make it easier for former inmates who have gone through rehabilitation programs to find housing and jobs. But they stop short of a more contentious idea of beefing up funding for job training or incentives for employers who hire them.
“We’re not going to be soft on crime. We’re not,” Deal said. “But if you do not deal with the situation after the confinement — the tail end of the story — if you do not make it successful, it will just repeat it all over again.”
But some advocates were disappointed that Deal closed the door on new state-funded perks that would encourage firms to hire released inmates. Kathryn Hamoudah of the Southern Center for Human Rights said that approach takes a more “holistic” view.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but a step further would be to look at the whole system and give people a real genuine shot at providing for families and rebuilding their lives,” she said. “That would help ensure that people stay out of prison and in the workforce.”
Deal, a former prosecutor, is among several Republican governors who are rethinking the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Deal and his allies shifted the conversation within the party partly because they portrayed the criminal justice measures as steps that could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
Legislation he signed last year allowed Georgia to push more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from prison, while a proposal he signed into law this year aimed at keeping younger offenders convicted of drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes out of juvenile lockups.
The governor said he hopes easing the rehabilitation process for released inmates reduces Georgia’s recidivism rate, the rate at which released offenders return to incarceration. A 2011 study by the Pew Center on the States found that the recidivism rate here was more than 34 percent. And that rate has remained relatively stable despite a massive increase in corrections spending.
“Just think what we could do if we have a recidivism rate that drops by just 1 percent,” the governor said.
Deal said his budget proposal would shift existing corrections funds to add five housing counselors in urban areas who would help released inmates find a place to live. His legislative agenda also will include an effort to block some state agencies and departments from disqualifying a job applicant because of a prior conviction.
“It would at least allow someone who has a conviction in their record have a face-to-face interview to explain what happened,” Deal said. “That’s a first step we can take in state government, and perhaps private industry will decide to follow suit.”
It mirrors a proposal that’s in the works at the Criminal Justice Reform Council, which has for months debated a list of recommendations that it plans to submit to lawmakers in January. The council’s recommendation calls for exemptions to that policy for jobs in public safety and other sensitive positions.
Thomas Worthy, a co-chairman of the council, calls it “the state’s way of saying we can lead by example.” But it remains uncertain how far the proposal will extend and whether state lawmakers will support it. Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry, who sits on the council, has a brother who was sentenced to serve 15 years in prison on child pornography charges.
“And there’s some things my brother should just not do when he gets out of the penitentiary,” Berry said.
Deal said more fine-tuned details are in the works, but Deal said he would not endorse any additional state funding toward training programs or incentives to employers who hired released inmates.
“We need to be very sensitive to those who have not and have never violated the law. We don’t want to create an unlevel playing field and to give (convicts) a position that is superior to those who have always been law-abiding citizens,” Deal said. “But we can bring employment and housing to a more level field.”
Some Democratic leaders were guardedly encouraged by Deal’s stance, optimistic that legislators could find other ways to increase job training for inmates.
“It seems to me that we can greatly reduce the chances of recidivism — and therefore additional burdens on the taxpayers and the community — if inmates leave prison with marketable skills and opportunities for employment,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta.
Deal, for his part, acknowledged that the third phase was smaller in scope, but that it would have a broad impact. He also made clear in the interview that, to him, this issue is personal.
“I always have a soft spot in my heart for the underdog, the one who overcomes adversity, the person who struggles with the kind of struggles that most of us never confront,” said Deal, his voice cracking. “Those are the kinds of folks that are really the unsung heroes because they endure and they overcome.”