Kemp’s tough-on-crime plan veers sharply from Deal’s approach

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gov. Nathan Deal’s most prized legacy was an eight-year criminal justice overhaul that steered more nonviolent offenders from prison cells to treatment centers. Gov. Brian Kemp is taking a sharply different path with a return to tough-on-crime policies that his predecessor avoided.

Entering an election year, Kemp has pledged to pass new crackdowns on human trafficking, create a crime-fighting unit to target gang offenders and increase the number of law enforcement officers.

Just as significantly, Kemp’s administration outlined in budget hearings Wednesday a plan to spend $600 million to build two new prisons to replace four aging facilities, a massive infusion of new spending for the state’s corrections system.

And he’s framed his support for a rollback of gun restrictions as a public safety measure that will help Georgians combat crime and ensure their “constitutional rights are protected and not undermined.”

Civil rights advocates and criminal justice analysts see a drastic departure from Deal’s agenda, which gave judges more discretion to divert nonviolent offenders from costly prison beds and largely steered clear of sweeping new criminal penalties.

Jason Pye of the Due Process Institute, a bipartisan group that advocates for an alternative approach to prison sentencing, said Kemp’s criminal justice policy seemed “one-dimensional” with the exception of new spending on mental health programs.

“He should get behind second-chance initiatives that would help individuals who have a record to find employment, continue their education or obtain housing so they can improve their lives,” Pye said.

Still, Kemp’s strategy is no surprise to Pye and other policy experts. The Republican pledged during his 2018 campaign to launch a “stop and dismantle” anti-gang program and bolster a database to track immigrants in the U.S. illegally who have committed crimes.

And while he touts his signature on a hate-crimes law in 2020 and a repeal of the state’s “antiquated” citizen’s arrest law last year, Kemp used a part of his annual speech last week to blast “soft on crime” local prosecutors and back legislation that would let Georgians carry concealed handguns without a permit.

“With many urban — and some rural — counties facing alarming levels of violent crime, we have the responsibility to act,” he told legislators during his State of the State address.

‘A problem everywhere’

Deal’s overhaul, at the forefront of a Republican-led “right-on-crime” movement, drew national praise for its record of results. Prison admissions of Black inmates dropped to historic lows, and court programs that treat nonviolent offenders were vastly expanded.

The former two-term governor often told audiences he decided to pursue the overhaul shortly after taking office, when the state’s corrections spending had swelled to $1.2 billion a year and officials projected two new prisons would be needed at a cost of $264 million if nothing changed.

The political climate has changed dramatically since then. Donald Trump made targeting MS-13 and other violent gangs a linchpin of his criminal justice policy during his 2016 run for president, and Kemp and other Republicans echoed him in a quest for conservative voters.

Rising crime has further shifted the dynamic under the Gold Dome. Atlanta’s crime rate was the top issue in last year’s mayoral election and is fueling a debate on a separatist movement to create a new Buckhead City.

An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that towns and cities across Georgia also are grappling with spikes in homicides and other violent crimes.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

“Crime is a problem everywhere, and I think that’s helping to drive the debate,” said state Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican who supports Kemp’s plan.

“It’s not just the metro area. It’s all over the state. And that’s the reason people have accelerated their right to purchase weapons and to support tough new penalties,” Powell said. “This isn’t just a Republican issue. It affects everyone.”

‘Costly for all Georgians’

Kemp’s tricky political path on his quest for a second term has also shaped his response.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is challenging Kemp in the Republican primary, has slammed the governor for not pushing an expansion of gun rights more urgently even after Kemp rolled out his firearms plan.

And Democrat Stacey Abrams has backed a plan that would eliminate cash bail, end private prisons, reduce penalties for some nonviolent offenses and make it easier for released inmates to find jobs.

Her campaign said she will develop a “full criminal justice reform and public safety agenda” that will build on the initiatives she supported in the state Legislature alongside two key Republicans: Deal and former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, then a state legislator.

It will present a sharp contrast with Kemp’s plan. Beyond the firearms expansion, the governor also wants to create an anti-gang unit designed to give Attorney General Chris Carr, a close political ally also facing a tough reelection campaign, more leeway to prosecute gangs statewide.

Kemp also pledged to spend millions of dollars to improve the state’s crime lab, train an additional Georgia State Patrol class of 75 cadets and recruit 1,000 more law enforcement officers with the promise of a tuition-free tech school education.

Democrats and criminal justice advocates worry about an unraveling of Deal’s legacy — and a missed opportunity to expand it.

Tiffany Roberts, the public policy director of the left-leaning Southern Center for Human Rights, said state leaders should back pre-arrest interventions and programs to help released inmates transition to society rather than “creating new law enforcement agencies and relying on incarceration.”

“A budget that prioritizes policing and incarceration,” she said, “will be costly for all Georgians.”