Georgia’s bold step: rethinking prison sentences

New law gives chance of parole to some drug offenders
When Georgia decided to lock up repeat felons and throw away the key, Darion Barker, here at his mother's house in Macon, was among those whose cell key was tossed. He was the first inmate to be released uner a new law.

Credit: Bob Andres

Combined ShapeCaption
When Georgia decided to lock up repeat felons and throw away the key, Darion Barker, here at his mother's house in Macon, was among those whose cell key was tossed. He was the first inmate to be released uner a new law.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Safety valve for recidivists

Georgia’s recidivist law said that if someone has three felony convictions and then commits a fourth felony, the offender has to serve the full sentence imposed and cannot be considered for parole.

But state lawmakers this year approved a law offering parole eligibility to some drug offenders who had not been eligible because they had been sentenced as recidivists. The law covers recidivist offenders sentenced to at least 12 years for drug offenses that include selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs with the intent to distribute. To be considered for parole (with no guarantee of getting it), the offender has to have served at least 12 years, have no serious violent felony or sex offense convictions, have a low-risk rating to commit another crime if released, have a clean disciplinary record, complete certain prison programs and have a high school diploma or equivalent.

The law does not apply to recidivists convicted of possession, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years, nor to redivists convicted of other nonviolent crimes.

How we got the story

In order to study what House Bill 328 would mean for Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution closely followed the roll-out of the new law. The AJC analyzed Department of Corrections data containing records of every inmate serving time as a recidivist and studied dozens of cases to see who could — and couldn’t — get relief through the law. The newspaper interviewed the state’s leading criminal justice reformers, parole officials, as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys. The AJC also spent hours with Darion Barker, the first person paroled under the new law. Veteran AJC reporters Bill Rankin and Carrie Teegardin first wrote about the enormous costs of Georgia’s tough-on-crime laws in 2010, before Gov. Nathan Deal started pushing for reforms that have significantly changed the state’s criminal justice system.

Life without parole. For more than a decade, Darion Barker refused to say those three words aloud.

The words held no hope, no prayer, no point. The law calls the sentence “life in prison without the possibility of parole.” And it is, indeed, life without possibility. The only way Darion Barker would leave prison was inside his own coffin.

Barker was not a murderer. He was not a rapist. He was a small-time drug dealer punished under Georgia’s severe sentencing laws, including one enacted during the crack cocaine epidemic when lawmakers said it was time to lock ‘em up and throw away the key. But the latest chapter of Georgia’s groundbreaking criminal justice reform initiative is unlocking some prison doors.

A law that took effect July 1 provides a limited group of nonviolent drug offenders the opportunity to win their freedom. Some inmates serving sentences even prosecutors and judges believe to be wasteful and immoral now have hope.

The legislation represents a sea change in policy, but it’s far from a full rewind of the drug war’s severe sentences. The new law has its own twist of injustic20e: It didn’t even include repeat offenders serving long sentences for the far lesser offense of possessing drugs, not selling them.

While the law is narrow and doesn’t repeal Georgia’s harsh repeat offender statute, it does take a bold step. It acknowledges that in some cases involving drug offenders, Georgia imposed punishments that didn’t come close to fitting the crime.

On July 16, Barker - who had been behind bars for 20 years - became the first inmate released under the new law. He is now living with his mother at her home in Macon.

“This is so amazing to me,” said Barker, 50, looking across the room at his beaming mom. “You know, you can never figure God out.”

Finding the key

Georgia has spent the last four years rethinking and remaking its criminal justice system. When the reforms started, Georgia led the nation for criminal supervision, with 1 in 13 people either locked up, on probation or on parole.

When it costs more than $20,000 a year to keep someone in state prison, policymakers ask: Is being this tough on crime a smart use of the state’s limited budget?

A central theme is woven into the series of reforms pushed by Gov. Nathan Deal: reserve costly prison beds for scary, violent offenders and substitute rehabilitation and accountability for nonviolent law breakers, especially drug addicts.

Drug offenders busted today — when the public is more concerned about terrorism than crack cocaine — routinely get sent to diversion programs or drug courts instead of prison. With those initiatives working well, the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform examined not just who was coming into the system, but who was already there.

“We realized there were nonviolent recidivists in prison who were really victims of history,” said Thomas Worthy, co-chair of the state’s reform council. “If they had been arrested and adjudicated currently, they may very well not be in prison, or if they were in prison it probably wouldn’t be for these completely astounding sentences.”

The long sentences are the result of Georgia’s repeat offender laws. One law classifies a person with four felony convictions as a recidivist who can never get parole, no matter how long the sentence. When used in tandem with the state’s drug laws, which call for lengthy sentences, these offenders can end up serving life without parole for a small-time drug bust.

“The council believed that these sentences were fundamentally inequitable and immoral, particularly when compared to the fact that many convicted serious violent offenders in Georgia are eligible for parole consideration at some point during their sentence,” said Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, co-chair of the council.

Georgia’s drug laws came under fire two decades ago because African-Americans were 26 times more likely than whites to receive a life sentence under the repeat offender law, Department of Corrections data showed. By late 1994, for example, 419 of the 423 inmates serving life sentences for a repeat drug sale were black and most sold less than $50 worth of drugs.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of the dozens of inmates who appear to meet most of the eligibility requirements under the new law found that more than 95 percent are African-American.

With overwhelming bipartisan support, the General Assembly passed, and the governor signed, House Bill 328, which offers dozens of these offenders an opportunity to be considered for parole. There’s no guarantee of release. To be considered, inmates have to have served 12 years already, have been a model citizen while locked up and have no history of serious violence.

The concept fits the overall theme of the state’s justice reform efforts, Boggs said. “While these nonviolent drug offenders had earned their way into the prison system, they should, under appropriate circumstances, be afforded an opportunity to earn their way out,” he said.

Earning his way in

Barker began smoking marijuana at age 13. After graduating from Macon’s Southwest High, he served four years in the Army and returned home in 1988. It seemed to him that just about anyone without a job was involved in the crack cocaine trade, and he took up with that crowd.

He began lacing his marijuana with crack, got hooked and started dealing to support his habit.

Barker then dropped out of sight, not to be seen again by his family for years. There was a reason for that, he said.

“I never stooped so low to steal from my family. My mentality was if I can’t do you no good, I won’t do you no harm. I won’t come around to have that kind of temptation.”

But police found him, again and again. Over a five-year span, Barker was convicted of theft by receiving stolen property, marijuana possession with the intent to distribute, cocaine possession and possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute.

That last of those convictions, in 1994, put Barker behind bars for just over a year. Ominously, it meant his next conviction for drug dealing made him eligible for a life sentence. And because he had the prior convictions, it meant he could get a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

On Oct. 13, 1995, a Macon police cruiser turned into a cul-de-sac known for drug activity. Two officers saw Barker toss a brown paper bag the moment he spotted their car.

Barker was quickly apprehended. Because the bag contained 34 rocks of crack cocaine, he was indicted for possession with the intent to distribute.

The life-without-parole sentence was now a real possibility. Yet Barker took his chances at trial and was convicted.

At sentencing, Bibb County Superior Court Judge Tommy Day Wilcox acknowledged that he was uneasy with the idea of sending Barker to prison forever. “If the state is not seeking life without parole, then there’s no problem with that as far as the court is concerned,” Wilcox said.

But the prosecutor said she was seeking just that. Wilcox then imposed the sentence.

In a recent interview, Wilcox said this about Barker’s recent release: “Praise the Lord, I’m glad he’s out. He served enough time.”

Some were missed

When the General Assembly passed the new law, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles started combing records to find inmates who could qualify. It’s a small group, with about 40 to 50 people who have the potential to meet the tough requirements.

The law was written to make sure to capture people like Barker.

But it left out people like Charlie Pritchett Jr. He’s a repeat drug offender, too. Yet he’s not eligible for parole on his 25-year sentence and he still won’t be. Pritchett’s last conviction, in Douglas County in 1994, was for straight possession, not the more serious drug offenses that are covered under the new statute.

People sentenced as recidivists, without a chance for parole, for other nonviolent offenses such as theft, forgery, shoplifting and burglary aren’t eligible, either.

Pritchett is 67 now and has already served 21 years on a sentence that never made much sense to family members, who said he was a drug addict.

“I know men who have done killed people, they did eight years and were back home,” said JoAnn Bowens, Pritchett’s sister. “The only person Charlie was trying to kill was his own self.”

Boggs and Worthy, of the reform council, plan to recommend new legislation that offers a shot at parole to people in on straight possession convictions, such as Pritchett. “There is a whole other universe of people that we intended to capture, that we inadvertently didn’t,” Worthy said.

‘All-time low’

Even years into his prison term, Barker still couldn’t accept his sentence.

“I said to myself, ‘These guys and these women who make these laws are smart people — they couldn’t put something into effect such as this,’” he said.

Barker wrote letters to lawyers across the state, asking for help. Then one day, he learned that the large Atlanta law firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton had agreed to represent him – for free.

Over the next several years, numerous Kilpatrick lawyers worked hundreds of hours on Barker’s case.

“We put our heart and soul into it,” said John Jett, one of those lawyers. “That sentence never felt right. So we tried to change it.”

In 2009, the new lawyers convinced South Georgia Judge Robert Chasteen that Barker’s prior convictions were based on guilty pleas that had not been properly entered. For this reason, Chasteen threw out Barker’s life-without-parole term.

“I was through the roof,” Barker said.

But the state appealed, and the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Chasteen’s ruling.

The Kilpatrick lawyers tried again, pursuing the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the high court declined to take it, Barker had lost once and for all.

It was only then, 13 years into his sentence, when Barker said he could finally utter those three words aloud. Life without parole.

“That was an all-time low,” he said.

Even so, Barker continued to improve his lot. He took classes to become a paralegal and spent as much time as he could in the prison law library reading every new state law that concerned criminal justice. He discovered he loved to read, particularly biographies about Abraham Lincoln, John D. Rockefeller and Steven Jobs. He ran 12 miles a week in the prison yard to relieve stress and clear his mind. He regularly attended Bible study classes.

But he also saw one inmate after another come up to be considered for parole. These included men convicted of multiple murders, or, as Barker put it, “people who stack bodies as high as the ceiling.”

Barker said there were times he found himself thinking the unthinkable.

“I thought I sure would like to have their case rather than mine,” he said. “Many days I said that. Multiple bodies. Most of them were going to be eligible for parole one day.”

‘Do you believe me now?’

Long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are under federal scrutiny, too. President Barack Obama is leading a new effort to allow the release of offenders sentenced to decades as part of the nation’s decades-long War on Drugs.

At a speech in July, Obama said low-level drug dealers owe a debt to society and need to be held accountable. “But you don’t owe 20 years,” the president said. “You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid.”

Criminal justice reform is one of the few issues nationally that has strong bi-partisan support. Gov. Nathan Deal has made these changes a top priority. He said the new law was written so that only people who have rehabilitated themselves can be considered for early release.

“If someone has been rehabilitated and they have served 12 years, I think under most circumstances people would say that they deserve to be considered for parole at that point in time,” Deal said.

The governor has some advice for those leaving prison as a result of the law.

“They are pioneers,” he told the AJC. “They can’t afford to make a mistake, because if they make a mistake, then their mistake will be a reflection on the General Assembly and the Criminal Justice Reform Council that recommended they be given this extra chance. I encourage them to make sure that they live a model life, as nearly as possible.”

This year, after House Bill 328 passed, Barker read through it and saw provisions affecting nonviolent drug offenders like himself – people with no hope of ever getting out. Even so, he refused to believe it applied to him.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, OK, OK, I’ve read this before,’” he said.

Little did Barker know that pardons and paroles officials had already identified him as being eligible under that very bill. Not only that, he was first in line for early release.

On the first day the law took effect, Patrick Price, the parole board’s strategic planning coordinator, called Barker’s 73-year-old mother, Ella Jackson, to tell her the news. The board had just voted to grant Barker parole, Price said.

After Jackson repeatedly screamed “Praise Jesus!” and danced and sang and cried, Price told her Darion would be coming home soon.

When Barker made a routine call to his mother on July 4, she told him the incredible news.

Barker didn’t believe her. Thinking someone was pulling a cruel scam, he told her to call the phone number back and see if the parole board office in Atlanta identified itself on the other end.

So Jackson called Price back and, to his amazement, asked for some proof. But she was quickly convinced because Price knew so much about her son’s time in the prison system.

After years of being unable to accept that he was in prison forever, now Barker found that he was unable to fully accept the idea of getting out. That is, until he was called into the counselor’s office and given the news officially.

On July 16, Jackson, her daughter and two other relatives drove to Wilcox State Prison in Abbeville to take Barker home. He refused to look back at the prison as he walked out to the car. As they drove away, he kept his eyes closed.

Only when the car passed through the prison’s gates did the rejoicing begin in earnest.

When they entered the Macon city limits, Barker finally broke down in tears, having so long wondered whether he’d ever see his hometown again.

That night, as the family held a party, the parole board’s Price telephoned Barker. “Do you believe me now?” Price asked.

For the first time in 20 years, Barker can now sit in a soft, comfortable chair. He enjoys looking out the window without seeing fences blocking the horizon. He’d like to find a job as a paralegal or a barber, having learned to cut hair in prison. He’s trying to get financial aid so he can attend a technical college and get the license he needs to cut hair outside the prison walls.

The man who walked into prison with a drug addiction has walked out as someone who adores thick, complicated books, who is devoted to his family, and who lets tears well up as he thinks about his journey. A man whom Georgia once thought needed to be locked up forever says that in freedom he’s still relying on the same force he turned to every day that he was behind bars.

“It was God and my faith and the prayers of my family and myself,” Barker said. “That is what brought me through.”

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