Atlanta nonprofit to spearhead criminal justice push

Former Gov. Nathan Deal and former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates.  The two are set to play roles in a new nonprofit advocating for criminal justice reform. (Alyssa Pointer / AJC and Emily Haney / Red & Black)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Former Gov. Nathan Deal and former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates.  The two are set to play roles in a new nonprofit advocating for criminal justice reform. (Alyssa Pointer / AJC and Emily Haney / Red & Black)

Over the past eight years, Georgia transformed its criminal justice system. Its reforms, aimed at cutting prison costs while improving public safety, encouraged other states to enact similar measures and helped prompt the Trump Administration to take action on the federal level.

Now the state will serve as a hub, pushing criminal justice issues nationwide with a newly formed nonprofit based in Atlanta. Members hail from across the political landscape. Its advisory board includes prominent Democrats, such as former California Gov. Jerry Brown and ex-Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, and Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky.

Former Gov. Nathan Deal and ex-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates — both Georgians — will also play key roles in the effort.

“It’s the right idea at the right time,” said Adam Gelb, the founder and CEO of the Council on Criminal Justice.

“There’s a real thirst across the political spectrum and across the country for sound data and research on strategies that work to cut both crime and incarceration,” he said. “We’re going to be a catalyst for policy that’s factual, not just fashionable.”

Adam Gelb, founder and CEO of the newly formed Council on Criminal Justice. (The Pew Charitable Trusts)

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Gelb, 54, helped craft Georgia’s initiatives when he ran the criminal justice reform project for the Pew Charitable Trusts. He previously worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a crime reporter and once served as executive director of the Georgia Sentencing Commission.

The council’s members will be split into task forces that will focus on specific initiatives, Gelb said.

Deal, who spearheaded Georgia's reform initiatives, is chairing the task force on federal priorities. Deal seems well-suited to head such an effort, because he served nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before becoming governor.

The reforms Deal implemented in Georgia saved an estimated $264 million in projected spending for new prisons. All the while, violent crime and property crime rates dropped, as did prison admissions, particularly those for African-Americans. Deal also led an overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system and an enormous expansion of accountability court programs that treat offenders who suffer from substance abuse and mental illness.

In December, President Donald Trump touted reform efforts in Georgia, Texas and Kentucky when he signed the First Step Act into law.

“They’ve had tremendous — tremendous results — results that are incredible,” he said.

The legislation, passed with bipartisan support, shortens prison terms for some federal inmates, increases job training and includes a risk assessment system to identify prisoners who can take programs to earn credits for an early release. This past Friday, Justice Department officials announced that more than 3,100 inmates are being released from federal prisons across the country to comply with the First Step Act.

Inmate students listen to Gov. Nathan Deal's remarks during a ceremony to officially open the first of what he envisions as a statewide network of prison-based charter schools. The Foothills Education Charter School is at the Burruss Correctional Institute in middle Georgia BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Greg Bluestein

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Credit: Greg Bluestein

The Council on Criminal Justice hopes to build on this progress, said Yates, the former U.S. attorney in Atlanta who will co-chair the council's board of trustees.

"We're at a moment in time where there is a real bipartisan consensus to implement reforms," Yates said. "It's important that we act on that, because just offering up a solution isn't going to do any good unless we implement it. We've got to keep moving forward."

The council needs to find more alternatives to incarceration and encourage states to provide easier access to education, job training, drug treatment and anger management to those serving time, Yates said. “Otherwise, what do you think is going to happen when those inmates are released with no real tools that allow them to succeed?”

Washington lawyer Roy Austin, a member of board of directors, wants the council to keep criminal justice reform a priority on both the state and national levels.

“This council has the ability to do that,” he said. “And we can be more flexible and pull in an ideologically diverse group of members.”

Washington lawyer Roy Austin, who was a member of President Barack Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council. (Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis)

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Austin, who served in President Barack Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council, said he would like to see continued reforms of juvenile justice systems and sentencing laws. He’d also like to see a push for more progressive prosecutors who see the benefits of criminal justice reform.

Mark Holden, Koch Industries’ senior vice president, wants the council to have an ambitious agenda.

“There’s a lot to do,” said Holden, who co-chairs the council’s board of trustees. “This is one of those times when the stars are aligned and we have a real opportunity in this country.”

Holden called for improvements to underfunded indigent defense systems, overhauls of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, continued focus on reentry programs for offenders and a more streamlined clemency process at the federal level.

Holden was one of 10 people, most of them heads of conservative nonprofit groups, who signed a July 11 letter to Gov. Brian Kemp, urging him to reauthorize the Georgia's criminal justice reform commission initially founded by Deal.

Mark Holden, senior vice president of Koch Industries. (Koch Industries)

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“Georgia, through Governor Deal, has been a leader, and we can all look at what Georgia has accomplished,” said Holden, who has touted criminal justice reform for more than a decade.

“It started because legislatures and chief executives looked at their budgets and saw how much they were spending on prisons,” Holden said. “But I like to say that while they initially came for the savings, they stayed with it for the salvation.”