Opinion: A.G. Sessions’ use of bad data gains political points at Ga.’s expense

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has clearly spent too much time in Washington. In front of our state’s prosecutors recently, Sessions willfully ignored the progress Georgia has made in criminal justice reform and instead wants us to go back to the failed policies that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and failed to keep our communities safe.

Sessions wrongly implied that reforms in Georgia that have sent less people to prison in recent years have also increased violent crime. To bolster this fabrication, Sessions provided data out of context, including references to data from 2005, more than 7 years before smart-on-crime reforms were passed in Georgia.

He also reported an inaccurate increase in the rate of violent crime in the state. “Here in the Peach State,” he said, “violent crime went up nearly eight percent.” Wrong. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s data shows that since 2014, despite upticks in specific crimes like aggravated assault, the state’s overall violent crime rate has actually decreased. A closer look at the data shows the increases in certain violent crimes are highly concentrated in particular neighborhoods and relate more to a range of local-level factors rather than statewide trends or the tidy national narrative his office has concocted to push mass incarceration policies that simply don’t work.

It is important to note that despite Sessions’ attempt to connect the reforms to increases in violent crime, Georgians know that virtually all the reforms under Gov. Nathan Deal’s leadership targeted non-violent drug and property offenses. In the last 20 years, there have been absolutely no changes to the way violent crimes are prosecuted in Georgia, or the lengths of the sentences handed down to those convicted of such crimes.

Politicians like Jeff Sessions confuse the criminal justice system for a political talking point instead of recognizing it as a problem that requires all of us working together to find comprehensive, data-driven solutions.

Instead of arguing without justification that harsher punishments are necessary, local data and trends need to be closely examined and evidence-based solutions should be researched and implemented. What we have learned over the last seven years in Georgia is that when this happens taxpayer dollars are more wisely spent, improving public safety and strengthening families and communities.

Before Sessions came to Georgia to speak out of turn about made-up problems with our reforms, perhaps he should have spent some time preparing for his trip. If he had spoken to the leadership from any of the relevant stakeholders – Republican lawmakers, corrections agencies, judges, or even the prosecutors he was addressing – he would have learned why Georgia is nationally acclaimed. We have achieved smart and successful criminal justice reform based on extensive collaboration, deliberate collection and analysis of data, and comprehensive review of evidence-based policies.

In this highly polarized political environment it is critical that Georgians understand why our criminal justice reforms have been successful. When Gov. Deal took office in 2010, Georgia was spending more than $1 billion in corrections and had one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. Since 2011, the reforms, led by Gov. Deal and the Council on Criminal Justice Reform, were almost exclusively focused on low-level offenses related to addiction and mental illness.

As of 2017, our state’s prison admission rate is down more than 16 percent, the prison population is nearly 12 percent smaller than was projected, and over $260 million taxpayer dollars have been diverted to evidence-based practices that have led to an anticipated decline in our recidivism rate.

Those, Mr. Sessions, are the facts.

Sara Totonchi is the executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR). SCHR is a nonprofit law firm that provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails, litigates to improve legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, and advocates for criminal justice system reforms on behalf of those affected by the system in the Southern United States.

Marissa McCall Dodson is the public policy director at SCHR. Dodson is responsible for developing and advocating for legislation that furthers SCHR’s mission, including reforming harsh sentence laws, enhancing alternatives to incarceration, and ending the criminalization of poverty. In 2016, Dodson was appointed to a subcommittee of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform focused on improving the state’s sentencing and probation laws.