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Criminal justice reveals wide split in Georgia governor’s race

If Nathan Deal has a lasting legacy from his eight years in office, it may very well be his criminal justice initiative. The governor’s push to steer nonviolent offenders away from costly prison beds toward rehabilitation programs has gained national renown and rewritten the tough-on-crime Republican playbook.

But his potential successors have wildly different plans that will continue to reshape how punishment will be meted out in Georgia’s courts.

Democrat Stacey Abrams wants to eliminate cash bail and move toward decriminalizing some marijuana offenses. Republican Brian Kemp believes it’s time to adopt a crackdown on gangs and funnel vast new resources into law enforcement.

While neither candidate wants to undo Deal’s work, Kemp and several other candidates down the ballot have seized on a starker law-and-order narrative that echoes the tough talk from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other “law and order” conservatives.

“Kemp is selling what Sessions is selling — a return to an aggressive, proactive, zero-tolerance approach,” said Dean Dabney, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University.

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Secretary of State Brian Kemp talks to a small crowd at a rally at the Roswell City Hall Sunday, July 22, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

That model requires a reliable villain, and increasingly in 2018, candidates are warning of a rise in gang-related violence threatening communities with drive-by shootings and barbaric assaults.

It’s a theme that’s also emerged in the race for the state’s top law enforcement job.

Republican Attorney General Chris Carr recently held a roundtable to highlight the rise of organized crime, while his Democratic opponent, Charlie Bailey, has pledged to create a state unit to target gang members and press for more cash to hire prosecutors.

And further down the ballot, from courthouse jobs to Gold Dome positions, candidates are wrestling with how to balance those two approaches. Matthew Krull, a Republican solicitor running for re-election in Douglas County, said the community is struggling with a surge of violence from Mexican and Central American gangs.

“I’m a tough-on-crime kind of guy, and if someone commits violent crimes, I have no problem putting them in jail,” Krull said.

“But I do see a change in our approach to nonviolent offenses,” he said. “My voters are tired of seeing people put away in the criminal justice system without having a way out. And it does absolutely none of us any good not to try to help them reform.”

‘Prayers’

A razor-edged approach to crime used to be the norm in Georgia politics. Zell Miller campaigned for re-election as governor in 1994 with the help of a popular “Two Strikes” law that increased prison sentences and mandated life sentences with no parole for the second conviction for many violent offenses.

And Sonny Perdue’s most significant criminal justice initiatives as governor involved changes making it easier for victims of crime to receive financial restitution and giving prosecutors as many opportunities as defense attorneys to reject potential jurors in criminal cases.

David McDade, who at the time was the Douglas County district attorney, said it “answered the prayers prosecutors and crime victims had been offering for years.”

Then came Deal, who cited rising state incarceration costs and high recidivism rates to spearhead legislation over two terms that remade the state’s court system.

08/10/2018 — Jefferson, Georgia — Georgia Govener Nathan Deal speaks during a press conference at the one-year-old Amazon Fulfillment Center in Jefferson, Friday, August 10, 2018 (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The initiatives, passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, steered more nonviolent offenders away from prison and toward accountability courts and other programs. More state funding and resources poured into rehabilitation programs, and judges were granted new sentencing flexibility on some crimes.

Deal touted the results during a recent prison roundtable with President Donald Trump, noting a 10 percent decrease in violent crime since he was first elected governor.

“We have seen our African-American percentage in our prison system drop significantly,” Deal said. “Our African-American commitments to our prison is at the lowest level it has been since 1987. And in states like ours, we have a disproportionate number of minorities in our prison versus our population as a whole.”

Kemp and Abrams both support Deal’s overall criminal justice initiative, and Abrams played a key role on committees that helped form the law. And both also are open to expanding the state’s medical marijuana program to allow the in-state cultivation of the drug — a notion that the governor has long resisted.

And that’s about where their similarities on criminal justice issues end.

Abrams wants to end capital punishment and reduce penalties on some drug offenses. She would also expand the “ban the box” program to make it easier for some released inmates to land jobs and decriminalize low-level violations now treated as misdemeanors.

At the heart of her program is a plan to eliminate the cash bail system, asserting that any program that keeps “people in jail because they are poor is wealth-based discrimination.” 

It echoes a 2018 law signed by Deal to give judges more flexibility to impose the bonds, and mirrors moves by Atlanta and other Georgia cities that recently approved citywide restrictions on cash bonds. 

She often calls Deal the best governor in the nation on criminal justice issues, and hopes her priorities will force the state toward a reckoning that he helped spark.

08/23/2018 -- Fitzgerald, Georgia -- Georgia Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks to a crowed gathered at Nabila's Garden restaurant in Fitzgerald, Georgia, Thursday, August 23, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (Alyssa Pointer)

“Do we want to be the Georgia that goes backward to mass incarceration?” asked Abrams, who was once the state House’s top Democrat. “Or go forward and eliminate the stories of Georgia leaving behind its best and brightest?”

‘Scared’

Kemp, the secretary of state, said his office’s law enforcement arm and his work with sheriffs on courthouse security have given him a sharply different perspective on the debate. His “public safety reform” involves a tough anti-gang crackdown and a new approach to illegal immigration.

In language echoing Trump’s criminal justice policy, Kemp’s “stop and dismantle” program would pour more state funding into a state effort created in 2010 to monitor gang members and launch a public awareness campaign on the dangers of gang-related crime.

Another tenet of his plan is a “criminal alien database” to track unauthorized immigrants who have committed crimes and to try to speed their deportations. He’d do that by requiring law enforcement officials to transport people in the country illegally to a federal facility for deportation if they’ve committed a crime — something the law doesn’t currently mandate.

“On the campaign trail, I keep hearing that we’ve got to do something with these problems. And Georgia has become a distribution hub to the Mexican drug cartel,” Kemp said. “That’s what I’m focusing on, and that’s part of what our campaign is about: We’re trying to help protect people, and we need to be working at the local and state level.”

It’s not clear whether the gang problem is as pervasive as Kemp suggests. Of the 98 murders last year in DeKalb County, 10 were gang-related.

Dabney, the Georgia State criminologist, said much depends on whether gangs are defined as large, organized crime units or neighborhood-centric groups that may commit crimes but often don’t have any sophisticated hierarchy. Still, he added, there could be a political benefit to raising the specter of rising crime.

“If you can get someone scared enough,” Dabney said, “they’ll vote for you.”

Law enforcement leaders often have a different perspective. Police say those 10 gang-related murders in DeKalb are a problem that extends beyond the county line.

“Gangs do not respect jurisdictional or municipal boundaries. They pose a threat to everyone in Georgia, and the most vulnerable are Georgia’s poor children,” said Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn, who added he’ll back “any initiative that will help us interrupt organized gangs and arrest criminal gang members.”

Philosophically opposed

For law enforcement officers, who tend to lean to the right, the tough-on-crime talk is more philosophical than political.

“We want more accountability for people who break the law, not less,” said Terry Norris, the executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. It’s why he and others are wary of Democratic calls to eliminate cash bail. Without any skin in the game, he said, defendants pose a greater flight risk.

J. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, is wary of efforts to eliminate cash bail for the poor. HANDOUT (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“Many prisoners do pose a continuing threat, whether they are wealthy or poor,” Flynn said. “Judges and court systems should retain the right to set bail in the interest of public safety as opposed to social equity.”

Data are inconclusive about the effectiveness of the for-profit bond approach, used in Georgia and a majority of states. Four states have outlawed commercial bail bonds, and a bill that would completely eliminate bail for suspects awaiting trial — replacing it with a risk assessment program — narrowly passed the California Assembly last week.

Law enforcement is also wary of decriminalization of some drug offenses. Flynn said he would support accountability courts separating drug addicts from dealers. Addicts are forced to enter a treatment program and, if they successfully complete the program and stay clean, they can avoid jail time.

“It is not true that narcotic drug law violations are nonviolent crimes,” Flynn said. “There is credible data that shows drug crime is directly related to as much as 75 percent of all crime and drug law has been promulgated over many years as part of overall means to reduce all crime.”

Both strategies carry a high price tag. The proactive model favored by Kemp has already proved to be costly and doesn’t always produce the intended results, said Dabney, the Georgia State professor. But the approach favored by Abrams and other Democrats relies on the efficacy of follow-up programs.

“It’ll be slow-moving, and you’ll likely see some high-profile failures,” Dabney said.

Deal has a different idea in mind. In a recent interview, the governor sounded almost wistful about the next phase once he leaves office. Though he supports Kemp, he said he hoped whoever wins will keep the criminal justice council he formed and consider another major step — reducing or eliminating more mandatory minimum sentences.

He singled out legislation approved in 2006 that requires prison sentences of at least 25 years for some sex crimes. That law had broad bipartisan support — then-Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, called it the most important measure of that legislative session — but Deal said in hindsight those standards were “excessively long.”

“That will be a heavy lift, it will be a difficult thing to do,” he said, “but it’s time that we did that.”

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