Deal proposes next steps in Georgia’s criminal justice overhaul

Gov. Nathan Deal addresses the joint House and Senate budget committees today. Deal and the state's chief fiscal economist opened a week of legislative budget hearings Tuesday by presenting Georgia's economic outlook for the next year. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Gov. Nathan Deal addresses the joint House and Senate budget committees today. Deal and the state's chief fiscal economist opened a week of legislative budget hearings Tuesday by presenting Georgia's economic outlook for the next year. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.

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More power for judges to veer from stiff mandatory minimum sentences. Extra funding for training for prisoners. And an ambitious renovation of a shuttered Atlanta prison to help released inmates transition back into the real world.

The most dramatic elements of Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice overhaul have slowly taken root over the past five years, leaving thousands fewer inmates in costly prison beds. But in his sixth year in office, Deal wants a host of lower-profile changes that could leave their own mark.

Deal outlined those measures Tuesday in an address to House and Senate budget-writers who will vet the proposals over the next weeks. He staked much of his first-term agenda on the initial criminal justice overhaul, and now he wants to put $20 million behind new initiatives that he said could help them evolve.

The biggest ticket item is a $13.7 million renovation of Metro State Prison, a southeast Atlanta facility shuttered in 2011 as a cost-cutting move. He wants to transform it into a re-entry hub for released offenders to help smooth their return to society — and encourage them not to wind up back behind bars.

“It’s a big step to leave a system when you’ve been told what to do, when to do it, and monitored very carefully — which is what our prison system does and should do — to a system where you only have a probation officer or a parole officer who only checks on you a couple of times a week,” Deal said in an interview. “To make that transition as easy and simple as possible is what these kinds of facilities will do.”

It also includes $4.3 million for more charter schools at prisons. It would expand a GED fast-track program to all 13 of the state’s transition centers, hire more teachers and security staff, and expand vocational and tech programs to four state prisons.

And he wants lawmakers to set aside $1.3 million to expand high school coursework and vocational programs to county correctional facilities that provide housing for low-security risk, nonviolent state prisoners serving shorter sentences.

It builds on a program Deal's administration launched last year to create what he envisions to be a statewide network of prison-based charter schools that award graduates full-fledged high school diplomas.

The first, at Burruss Correctional Training Center in Middle Georgia, opened last year and Deal said the results were encouraging enough to expand it.

“The best way we can advance the quality of life in our state is to have as many of our citizens as possible educated,” Deal said Tuesday in selling the proposal to legislators.

‘Sacrosanct’ safeguards

The overhaul started in Deal’s first term with changes that allowed Georgia to push more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from expensive prison beds and gave judges more discretion to depart from mandatory sentences. The second part involved similar legislation that’s aimed at keeping young offenders out of juvenile lockups who were convicted of drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses.

At the time, the state's incarceration rate was the fourth highest in the nation and projections showed the prison population was to grow an additional 8 percent within five years, costing taxpayers an additional $264 million. The recidivism rate — the proportion of inmates convicted again within three years — remained stuck at a stubborn 30 percent.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson said that without the new rules, he would have been before the legislators asking for tens of millions of dollars to build two new prisons. Instead, he said, the system had fewer new inmates in 2015 than at any time in at least a decade and the lowest recidivism rate in more than 30 years.

Those measures have transformed Georgia’s prison system and turned the state into a national model of how a conservative tough-on-crime state can embrace a system of accountability courts and other cost-cutting changes to the corrections system while keeping violent offenders locked up.

The inmate population has dropped from about 56,000 to just under 52,000 since 2011, and the backlog of inmates in jails awaiting space in state facilities fell from roughly 5,000 in 2009 to less than 400 in late 2015. That has left what Deal called a “hardened” core of many violent criminals behind bars.

Some inmates convicted with drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses, though, were left out of the first few rounds of changes.

A criminal justice council is vetting recommendations that would allow defendants who successfully complete some lower-level sentences to have their convictions sealed from public view while letting them keep their driver’s licenses and receive food stamps.

Another proposal that’s in the works would offer some low-level drug offenders who are serving decades-long prison terms to become eligible for parole. And lawmakers are likely to weigh another measure that would give judges more leeway to deviate from mandatory minimums for a new range of sentences — but not those charged with murder, rape and other crimes known as the “seven deadly sins.”

“Those are still sacrosanct,” Deal said.

He likely won’t face much opposition from legislators, regardless of party affiliation, who have adopted his previous criminal justice proposals with overwhelmingly bipartisan support.

“It’s pretty incredible the strides that we’ve made. I’m excited that we’re looking at ways to reform the justice system and help people re-enter society,” said Democratic state Rep. Taylor Bennett, a Brookhaven attorney. “And it’s exciting news that we’re trying to look for new ways to bring those recidivism rates down.”

Some advocacy groups, too, are signaling their support. Sara Totonchi of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which has been among the loudest champions for the overhaul, said she’s confident that “2016 will mark another year of meaningful criminal justice reforms that benefit Georgians for years to come.”