Soon after he was elected governor, Nathan Deal made overhauling the state’s costly and famously tough criminal justice system a top priority.
It wasn’t long before he started to hear a common refrain.
“That’s not a Republican issue,” Deal said voters told him over and over again. To which he’d reply, “No, it might not be. But it ought to be. And it’s the right thing to do.”
Deal followed up on his initial pledge and then some. The two-term governor will leave office next month having pushed through sweeping changes that transformed the state's criminal justice system. The reforms have saved taxpayers a bundle in prison spending, dropped prison admissions of African-Americans to historic lows, overhauled the state's juvenile justice system and greatly expanded court programs that treat nonviolent offenders who suffer from substance abuse and mental illness. The overhaul will almost certainly be Deal's legacy.
“A lot of good things have happened,” Deal said in a recent interview, during which he quoted Johnny Cash and became emotional when he spoke of the redemption and rehabilitation of state prison inmates. “I am very pleased with how much we’ve accomplished.”
Deal's aggressive and methodical approach resonated in state Capitols across the country. Lawmakers saw a red state embrace reforms that were once only part of a liberal agenda. Some have followed suit. Now the GOP-led Congress is on the verge of enacting its own criminal justice reforms for the federal system. Some of the changes — such as programs that help inmates better themselves on the inside to help with their return to society on the outside — are similar to initiatives Deal put in place here a few years ago.
When Deal took office in 2011, Georgia led the nation in criminal supervision, with 1 in 13 people either locked up, on probation or on parole. The state was spending about $1.2 billion a year on its prison system. If nothing changed, two new adult prisons had to be built at a cost of $264 million.
“That just didn’t seem like a wise investment,” Deal said. “I thought we could do things better and achieve better results than we were getting. And that’s what’s actually happened.”
Over the past seven straight years, Deal's criminal justice reform initiatives were overwhelmingly approved — unanimously on two occasions — by the General Assembly. All the while, the crime rate fell steadily, blunting complaints from critics who called the governor soft on crime.
‘Led from the heart’
Deal’s first reform initiatives had a profound effect on the prison population, because they reduced certain nonviolent felonies to misdemeanor offenses. For example, lawmakers raised the threshold for some felony theft crimes from $500 in stolen merchandise to $1,500. They also created new categories of punishment for drug possession, with less severe penalties for offenders found with small quantities.
These changes diverted hundreds of nonviolent offenders away from prison, where it costs about $20,000 a year to house an inmate. Said Deal: “I think if you tell the average Georgian that their tax money is being spent in that amount to incarcerate someone who the state says is nonviolent, they’ll say that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Deal’s criminal justice proposals came from a council of judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials he appointed to oversee the effort. All the while, the governor said maintaining public safety was of the utmost importance and he expected the proposals to be guided by “evidence, data and best practices,” said Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs, who chaired the council.
Boggs added: “Not lost in any of this was that Governor Deal led from the heart.”
Deal said he got plenty of inspiration from his son, Jason Deal, a Superior Court judge who runs drug courts in Hall and Dawson counties. Such “accountability” courts allow defendants to avoid jail time if they stay sober, get treatment, get an education and find a job.
“I’ve had people who come up to me out of nowhere and say, ‘Your son saved my life. Drug court made the difference. I probably would not be alive if that hadn’t happened,’” Deal said. “It’s hard to overcome success like that.”
At his son’s request, Deal attended a few drug court graduation ceremonies. He said he broke down at every one, so much so he finally had to beg off.
“I’ve got too soft a heart,” the governor said, tears filling his eyes. “Those kinds of stories you hear of transformed lives, of restored family units, of children’s custody that had been lost but is now restored — oooh — those get to me. They are such a clear illustration that reforms can work and there is a possibility to redeem people.”
Drug court grad gets his dream job
In 2002, there were only three accountability courts in Georgia. Thanks to Deal's support, there are now 150 across the state. They take in drug addicts, the mentally ill, veterans and juveniles who've committed nonviolent offenses.
During the 2017 fiscal year, 1,729 people graduated from Georgia’s accountability courts. And each graduate produces $22,695 in economic benefits and savings to the state — in all, more than $38 million, according to a recent study by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. That includes state income taxes paid by graduates, reduced costs of incarceration and savings on foster care for children and medical care.
The study also found that recidivism rates for graduates of accountability courts are about 10 to 15 percentage points lower than those of similarly situated defendants who did not participate.
“Just being in an accountability court — whether you graduate or don’t graduate — significantly reduces your chances of re-offending again,” Judge Jason Deal said. “This has all been enormously, enormously successful. It’s been good for Georgia.”
Mack Cook III was one of the beneficiaries. In 2015, having already been arrested dozens of times, he faced certain prison time for selling crack cocaine to an undercover officer.
Instead of prison, Cook, 46, enrolled in Fulton County’s drug court program and graduated in April 2017. After washing dishes at a Midtown restaurant for a year, Cook got the job of his dreams — to work as a substance abuse counselor — this past May.
He’s now a lead supervisor at the East Point Recovery Center, which offers outpatient treatment for addicts and those suffering from mental illness. He takes patients on outings, such as the movies, the barber and the grocery store where he shows them how to shop.
“I can certainly empathize with them when they struggle,” Cook said. During this past week’s Christmas party, Cook said proudly, he was recognized with the center’s “Not Losing Your (Expletive) Award” for staying smooth in times of crisis.
“I am just so grateful I was afforded a second chance at life — to have a life,” he said.
‘People need to be given a second chance’
Since 2009, the peak year of incarcerations, the number of offenders sent to Georgia’s prisons has plunged by almost 19 percent, according to state records. During the same time, the number of African-Americans being locked up dropped by even more — 30 percent. In fact, the 9,298 blacks entering the prison system in 2017 was the lowest level in more than three decades.
“I would never have predicted 10 years ago we’d be where we are today thanks to Governor Deal’s leadership,” said Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.
“He had the courage to address Georgia’s addiction to incarceration in very meaningful ways.”
During the interview, Deal said his interaction with prison inmates assigned to work at the Governor’s Mansion has had a profound effect on him.
“We treat them like our children,” he said. “They’re all hard-working individuals. They are some of the finest people you’ll ever see. And my wife hugs them just like she’d hug a child.”
Then, his voice breaking and tears returning to his eyes, Deal said, “And we’re so happy in our celebration when they get word they’re going to be paroled.”
Because many of these trustees are serving time for murder, it’s time to reconsider the state law that requires all people convicted of murder serve at least 30 years behind bars before being considered for parole, Deal said.
“There comes a point where incarceration no longer serves a purpose,” he said. “There comes a point where retribution ought to stop and rehabilitation ought to take over.”
The same goes for some of the state’s strict mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, he said. It’s time to give judges more discretion.
Deal then quoted “A Man in Black” by Johnny Cash. In that song, the legendary singer-songwriter said he wore black “for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime but is there because he’s a victim of the times.”
Deal said he hopes Governor-elect Brian Kemp and his successors will continue criminal justice reform efforts. (On the campaign trial, Kemp praised Deal’s criminal justice overhaul but said he’s focused on toughening penalties against violent offenders.)
“I’d like to see every reform kept in place and, if possible, expanded upon,” Deal said. “Because when you present people with the facts it’s pretty hard to deny that they are working. And people need to be given a second chance.”
Deal then grinned and added, “It may not have been a Republican issue when I started, but it’s a Republican issue now.”
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.
WHY IT MATTERS:
The measures championed by Gov. Nathan Deal have fundamentally changed the way the criminal justice system in Georgia functions. Prior to the overhaul, the state’s prison system was consuming an increasingly large chunk of taxpayer funds. And that was set to balloon as the inmate population continued to skyrocket under the state’s tough sentencing laws. In addition to saving taxpayer funds, Deal’s reforms have also provided a path for rehabilitation aimed at enhancing public safety.
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