Capitol Recap: Sessions stirs doubts about changes in criminal justice

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office has said his overhaul of Georgia’s criminal justice system — which has aimed to direct nonviolent first-time offenders away from prison — has saved taxpayers $260 million over the past eight years. But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says spikes in violent crime mean more offenders should be headed to prison cells.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office has said his overhaul of Georgia’s criminal justice system — which has aimed to direct nonviolent first-time offenders away from prison — has saved taxpayers $260 million over the past eight years. But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says spikes in violent crime mean more offenders should be headed to prison cells.

Gov. Nathan Deal has long been showered with warm praise for his efforts to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions just turned on the cold water.

Deal's work has focused on steering nonviolent offenders away from prison and working to smooth the transition back into society for those who have spent time behind bars so they don't return. The governor's office says the overhaul has saved taxpayers $260 million in correctional costs over the past eight years.

Sessions, however, devoted much of a speech to the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia making a case against letting those prison cells sit idle. As his first piece of evidence, he offered a spike in violent crime from 2014 to 2016.

First, he gave these national figures:

  • Violent crime, up nearly 7 percent.

  • Assaults, up nearly 10 percent.
  • Rape, up nearly 11 percent.
  • Murder, up more than 20 percent.

The attorney general then rattled off these figures for Georgia:

  • Violent crime, up nearly 8 percent.
  • Aggravated assault, up nearly 12 percent.
  • Murder, up 17 percent.

Sessions’ stats differ some from the GBI’s numbers. It reports that in 2016, violent crime in Georgia was up 5 percent over 2014, aggravated assault was up 8 percent and murder was up 15 percent.

Georgia’s numbers fall within the same range for 2017, Sessions’ first year as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Violent crime was up 7 percent over 2014, so down a smidge, and aggravated assault was up 8 percent over the same period, so somewhat better. Murder, however, was up 21 percent over that 2014 base number.

The attorney general also used the trip to Jekyll Island to point out how difficult it could be to keep released inmates from making the journey back to Cellblock C.

As his second piece of evidence, he cited a study over nine years on recidivism in 30 states that the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted.

“The study estimates that the 400,000 state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested nearly 2 million times during the nine-year period — an average of five arrests each,” Sessions told the prosecutors.

Swing shift: Georgia has apparently changed its Facebook status to "swing state," according to a story by The Associated Press.

For the story, GOP pollster Mark Rountree described Georgia as “a light-red state.”

No matter what happens in November’s elections, Rountree said, “I don’t think Georgia will be a national afterthought for either side anymore.”

Democratic consultant Tharon Johnson also spoke to the AP, saying that Georgia Democrats will no longer be satisfied with a close loss.

“There are no more moral victories in Georgia,” Johnson said.

Democrats are in position, he said, to make the most of demographic changes within the state, and a “talented candidate” — presumably, Stacey Abrams, the party’s candidate for governor — with a sizable war chest could lead the way.

Democrats have to at least hope Georgia is ready to swing.

The party’s improving prospects in coastal and Sunbelt states — the AP noted Virginia, North Carolina and “potentially Arizona” — could ease its feelings of uncertainty in an area once reliably safe, the Upper Midwest. It was there where the “blue wall” tumbled in Michigan, Wisconsin and other states that allowed Donald Trump to clinch his presidential victory in 2016 over Hillary Clinton.

Ohio and Iowa, where Trump won with margins approaching double digits, are particularly concerning to Democrats, so they’re trying to nurture aspirations in Georgia, hoping its 16 electoral votes can help fill that void.

“These changes in states like Georgia aren’t occurring in a vacuum,” Democratic pollster Zac McCrary told the AP. “The party cannot afford to get in a situation where their only path to 270 (electoral votes) has to include Ohio, so we need to bring a state like Georgia online as a possibility.”

No resolution on Russia: The U.S. Senate seemed prepared to back a bipartisan resolution that would support the intelligence community's findings that Russia meddled with the 2016 election.

Until one man said it wouldn't: Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

The resolution pushed by U.S. Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Christopher Coons, D-Del., also aimed to thank the U.S. Department of Justice for conducting its investigation into Russian interference.

But Perdue, citing it as a “political distraction,” took advantage of Senate rules to block the request to pass the legislation by unanimous consent.

This is the second time such a resolution has hit a wall, The Hill newspaper reported.

Taking aim at Rosenstein: The Russia investigation also figured in an effort U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, joined seeking the impeachment of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Some of Hice’s colleagues in the House Freedom Caucus responsible for the move say Rosenstein — whose duties include overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling — has failed to cooperate with Congress by not providing documents to them related to the FBI’s investigations into Hillary Clinton and Russia.

The Justice Department has denied those claims.

Hice said senior officials at the Justice Department and the FBI have engaged in “a culture of stonewalling and misdirection,” and he placed the blame on Rosenstein and former FBI Director James Comey.

“It is the duty of America’s law enforcement agencies to rise above the fray, and it is our duty in Congress to root out corruption in our government when it presents itself,” Hice said in a statement. “While we have acted in good faith and given DAG Rosenstein every opportunity to comply with Congressional requests, he has evaded our attempts to conduct oversight time and time again. Now, the only recourse we have left in order to fulfill our vested duty is to hold Rod Rosenstein accountable — before the American people lose all trust and confidence in these agencies.”

It worked before: U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, appears to be into recycling.

Now that her race for re-election has truly begun — with Lucy McBath winning the Democratic nomination in the 6th Congressional District — Handel is pulling out some familiar material.

During last year’s special election for the U.S. House seat, Handel took a line of attack against the Democratic contender, Jon Ossoff, that basically pointed out “he ain’t from around here” because he lived outside the district. More importantly, maybe, Handel’s campaign often noted that neither were the people who were giving him money.

It’s not quite the same, but it’s also not that different this time: McBath, a 6th District resident, lived in Tennessee with her husband during a family emergency that caused her to miss Georgia’s elections in 2016. Also, the former spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety has received a substantial amount of campaign cash from the group.

So Handel campaign manager Mason Rainey, in a press release following McBath’s nomination, gave her a bit of the Ossoff treatment.

“Karen Handel has deep roots in our community,” Rainey said, “and a record of actually delivering results for the working families. …

“Ms. McBath, on the other hand — like Jon Ossoff last summer — has been bought and paid for by money from out-of-state donors with no connection to our community. …

“The voters of the 6th District are not going to turn over this seat to an occasional area resident that works for a special interest, dark-money SuperPac and couldn’t be bothered to vote in last year’s election or for years before.”

Ossoff, by the way, sent out a tweet Wednesday endorsing McBath.

Heading out: Atlanta attorney Stefan Passantino, who has spent the past year and a half working as the White House's ethics lawyer, is planning to leave the position.

Politico reports that Passantino could make his exit by the end of the summer.

Passantino has been commuting between Washington and Atlanta, where his family still lives, while serving as the No. 2 attorney in the White House under counsel Don McGahn.

It’s another notch on an impressive resume.

Passantino served as a counsel to Newt Gingrich during his 2012 presidential run, and he has advised many prominent Republican politicians while also heading the political law division for the mega-firm Dentons.

Capitol Recap

Here's a look at some of the political and government stories that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's staff broke online during the past week. To see more of them, go to