Why criminal justice reform could play big role in final weeks of governor's race

Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice overhaul is one of the Republican's rare policies not under attack by Democrat Jason Carter or his allies. And in the final weeks of the race, some voters can expect to hear even more about it from the incumbent's campaign.

The three legs of Deal's package have sought to keep more nonviolent adult and juvenile offenders out of jail and reduce stubborn recidivism rates. Parts of it have already taken root:  An AJC analysis showed the number of blacks entering the prison system in 2013 was at its lowest level since 1988.

The governor's campaign is likely to frame targeted pitches to black voters around the overhaul these last weeks to try to blunt the Democrat's support among minority voters. Carter's campaign hopes to push black turnout to roughly 30 percent of the electorate to unseat Deal.

The governor said in an interview that although he tries not to "make a big deal" about the overhaul, it's an example of bipartisanship. The package passed with little opposition from either party in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

"Well, considering the fact that a majority of the inmates in the prison system are African-American, we think it would have some resonance with them," the governor said, adding: "We have reached out significantly with the African-American faith-based community because they are doing a lot. But this is a long term proposition."

Carter's campaign heaps plenty of criticism over Deal's platform - attacking him on education funding, economic policy and the ongoing ethics saga - but has largely held its fire on criminal justice.

That may explain the Deal campaign's strategy around the overhaul. At a recent campaign swing through Augusta, Deal told audiences that he hoped to expand the use of accountability courts to reduce recidivism if granted a second term.

"Our criminal justice reforms are going to be major, positive things for our state," he told one crowd. "It's saving us money, it's changing lives and it's keeping us safer. And I want to be here to carry those things to logical conclusions."

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.