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CONTINUING COVERAGE: Georgians helped shape criminal justice overhaul

A Gainesville Republican put pen to paper in the U.S. House.

A libertarian activist from Newton County worked for years behind the scenes to drum up support among conservatives.

Civil rights leader John Lewis pressed the bill’s authors to go bigger, while Georgia’s junior senator helped negotiate last-minute changes aimed at pushing the legislation to the right.

Those were just some of the Georgians who had a hand in crafting Washington’s most substantial criminal justice overhaul in a generation. The legislation, known as the First Step Act, cruised through the Senate on Tuesday on a vote of 87-12 and is expected to easily pass the House by the end of the week.

The measure still faces critics, but it’s an example of a meaty bipartisan compromise that’s grown increasingly rare on Capitol Hill in recent years. And it was inspired in no small part by the changes made in recent years by conservative Southern states such as Georgia, South Carolina and Texas.

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“It’s easy to get lost in the details, but the overall thrust of what’s happening in Georgia and in Washington is nearly identical,” said Adam Gelb, an Atlanta-based criminal justice expert who helped craft Georgia’s policies while at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Policymakers are focusing prison beds on the people who present the greatest danger to communities and steering others into programs that will cut the chances they return to a life of crime,” said Gelb, who now runs the think tank the Council on Criminal Justice.

Georgia’s effort

Over the past eight years, Gov. Nathan Deal made overhauling the state’s criminal justice system one of his top priorities.

He spearheaded legislation over his two terms that aimed at diverting more nonviolent and juvenile offenders away from expensive prison beds, set up a system of accountability courts and poured more resources into rehabilitating prisoners and helping them re-enter society. A bill he signed into law earlier this year gave judges new flexibility to forgo cash bail for poor defendants.

One of Deal’s first floor leaders in the Georgia House was Doug Collins, another ambitious Gainesville Republican.

After coming to Washington to represent Deal’s former U.S. House district in 2013, Collins looked to apply some of the same lessons learned in Georgia to the federal prison system, which houses about 10 percent of the nation’s inmates.

“The thing that Governor Deal and other (governors) did was provide the inspiration and the results we could see from the states and provide evidence that this actually does work,” Collins said.

But where Deal had a willing partner in the Republican-controlled Legislature, Collins and other advocates of a criminal justice overhaul faced pockets of entrenched resistance on Capitol Hill. Many conservatives were champions of the tough-on-crime law enforcement policies of the 1980s and ’90s, while more liberal lawmakers insisted on broader changes that were anathema to the right.

Momentum began building around 2015, when eight advocacy groups on the left and right, including the Duluth-based evangelical organization Faith and Freedom Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union, built a political alliance around criminal justice, said Jason Pye, a Covington native who led efforts at the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, another early member of the coalition.

“All these groups agreed that we needed to do something about the criminal justice system, both in terms of the human costs as well as the fiscal costs of incarceration,” Pye said.

The groups helped build political momentum around a bipartisan sentencing overhaul in 2015, only to be scuttled by a group of conservatives, including Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who feared it was a threat to public safety.

Renewed efforts 

Advocates regrouped after the 2016 elections, when Collins teamed up with a friend, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., to pilot a different approach.

The duo penned a narrower bill that focused exclusively on tackling recidivism rates among federal prisoners. The idea was that focusing on vocational training, mental health and substance abuse counseling — while sidestepping the more contentious issue of overhauling sentencing entirely — would win over conservative skeptics such as then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

They found a champion in Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and policy adviser, whose own father had served time in prison. Kushner persuaded the president to support the effort, but the bill still hit speed bumps on its way to House passage in May.

One particularly loud critic was Lewis, the longtime Atlanta congressman. The Democrat said the legislation needed to be broadened to address not just inmates leaving prison, but the way offenders are sentenced on the front end. He also warned the bill would exclude too many incarcerated people and exacerbate racial and socioeconomic disparities via its “flawed” risk assessment system.

The changes in the bill “could actually worsen the situation in our federal prisons by creating discriminatory non-evidence-based policies,” Lewis said in a lengthy letter that was also signed by Democratic U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both seen as 2020 presidential hopefuls.

The discussion ultimately began to shift after Sessions was pushed out after the midterms. Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, added sentencing changes to Collins’ bill, and Trump began to more forcefully push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to schedule a vote on the measure.

The amended legislation won praise from a wide variety of Georgia players, including Bernice King, the CEO of the King Center, and the local chapter of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. But some sheriffs groups still opposed it, and civil rights groups urged lawmakers to make even more changes.

Georgia’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Johnny Isakson, was quick to sign onto the amended effort, which he saw as a federal parallel to Deal’s work on the state level.

Perdue’s vote took longer to win.

The Trump ally is generally more aligned with the ultraconservative wing of the GOP on law enforcement issues, but he ultimately signed on after he and Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz secured last-minute changes making certain types of offenders ineligible to serve the latter part of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.

Ripple effect? 

The version of the First Step Act cleared by the Senate mirrors some changes made at the state level in Georgia, but experts caution it’s hard to make direct comparisons between the federal and state criminal justice systems since the former is far smaller and houses prisoners who have committed different categories of crimes.

Like Georgia, the First Step Act would expand a judge’s discretion for sentencing offenders, allowing them to deviate from mandatory minimums in certain cases to ensure punishments fit crimes. It would also incentivize inmates to participate in rehabilitative programming to earn time credits for placement in home confinement or a halfway house.

The federal effort, which focuses mainly on prisoners who committed lower-level drug and weapons-related offenses, also seeks to address some past policies that have disproportionately hit African-Americans, including sentencing guidelines that are harsher on crack cocaine than powder cocaine offenses.

It does not make major changes to the juvenile justice system or bail guidelines, as Georgia has done.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill would reduce the federal inmate population by 53,000 “person-years” over a decade, or the equivalent of releasing that number of prisoners in one year. (There are about 180,000 federal prisoners, according to the Bureau of Prisons.)

While that won’t have an impact on Georgia’s state-run prisons, Gelb estimated that passage of the First Step Act could have a “ripple effect” on state legislatures.

“Ultimately, the greatest effect of this legislation may be on political attitudes,” he said. “Washington is so polarized and paralyzed that if there can be bipartisan agreement on this, it sends a very strong signal to lawmakers across the country that criminal justice reform is both good policy and good politics.”

In the meantime, Collins has been working the phone lines, urging his colleagues to support the bill as it moves through the House.

“This is the part of lawmaking that nobody reports on because it’s tedious,” said Collins, who will soon become the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, where he hopes to work next year on follow-up criminal justice bills. “It’s eight, 10 hours every day. It’s working through the weekend, finding that common spot.”

Most of Georgia’s 14 House lawmakers have signaled they’ll support the current legislation, although Lewis has been noncommittal.

One big fan of the legislation is Deal, who is preparing to leave office next month. He told a reporter he sees the bill as “affirmation that states can set examples for the federal government.”

Deal said he hears frequently from people who were given second chances because of Georgia’s overhaul. When asked how he responds to them, he grew emotional.

“I get choked up,” he said, pausing briefly. “Those are the kinds of results that affect the individual lives of people. Government ought to be able to do that — positively affect the lives of citizens.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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