Former Georgia governor leads push for federal criminal justice reform

A criminal justice task force chaired by former Gov. Nathan Deal is recommending sweeping changes to the federal system.

The most notable is a call for the elimination of mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes. The task force also asks for the establishment of a “second look” provision that allows people serving lengthy sentences — many of whom are elderly and infirm — to seek sentencing reductions from a federal judge.

The "Next Steps" report, released Wednesday by the Council on Criminal Justice, was submitted by a task force chaired by Deal since June 2019. The bipartisan group's members include former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates; Mark Holden, retired general counsel of Koch Industries; former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter; and David Safavian of the American Conservative Union.

“The report is the strongest indication yet of the depth of political consensus on criminal justice reform,” said Adam Gelb, president and CEO of the Council on Criminal Justice.

The task force recommends 15 changes to the federal criminal justice system that would help continue decreasing the federal prison population from a high of 220,000 in 2013 to 175,000 today.

“As the task force wraps up its work, I am filled with optimism,” Deal wrote in an introductory letter. “The harsh political rhetoric of the past has softened, replaced by possibilities for progress on an issue that once was so divisive. Reform won’t be easy, but we can and must use this pivotal moment in time to work for a more fair and effective federal system that provides safety and justice for all.”

As governor, Deal spearheaded such monumental changes in the state's criminal justice system that Georgia became an example cited nationwide.

The task force takes aim at the strict, mandatory-minimum sentences that were enacted decades ago during the war on drugs. They have ensnared major drug traffickers but also thousands of lower-level players in the distribution chain, a disproportionate number of whom are minorities, the report said.

“Even with past modifications, the number of drug-law violators incarcerated, the excessive lengths of many of their sentences and the racial and ethnic disparities surrounding drug imprisonment are too significant to ignore,” the report said.

Other recommendations by the task force:

» Allow accountability courts to admit higher-risk offenders;

» Create independent oversight of the federal prison system, strengthen reentry planning for inmates and hold employees responsible for misconduct;

» Resolve the federal-state conflicts over recreational and medical marijuana use by providing waivers to states that have legalized it;

» Dedicate millions of dollars in grants to help reduce victimization and trauma in cities most affected by violence;

» Expand public housing access for people with convictions;

» Restore Pell Grants for federal inmates so they can get an education while in custody.

The goal, Deal said, is “to help the formerly incarcerated lead stable, successful lives.”

In his letter, Deal acknowledged that the task force’s proposals don’t address many of the criminal justice issues generating national attention today. These include the emerging threat of white nationalism, federal gun control, and the use of cash bail.

“In some cases, members believed such issues required further research and analysis before a responsible, evidence-based recommendation for federal action could be produced,” Deal said. “In other cases, it was clear that the federal government had limited tools to influence the issue, or that it was unlikely that Congress could agree on a remedy.”