OPINION: Nathan Deal talks justice reform as lawmakers toughen penalties

Governor Nathan Deal talks about his accomplishments with criminal justice reform during an interview in his office at the Georgia State Capitol in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday December 11th, 2018. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Governor Nathan Deal talks about his accomplishments with criminal justice reform during an interview in his office at the Georgia State Capitol in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday December 11th, 2018. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Former Gov. Nathan Deal is so well known for his legacy of advancing criminal justice reform in Georgia that the building that houses the State Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals is called the “Nathan Deal Judicial Center.”

Deal went into the governor’s office in 2011 with decades of legal experience, including in private practice, criminal prosecution, as a juvenile court judge, and as a Superior Court judge.

But it was a briefing in his earliest days in office about the state’s exploding prison population that got his attention. He’d need to build two new state prisons during his first term to keep up with the growth, he was told.

A review of the data showed nearly 60% of inmates at the time were nonviolent offenders, with a huge share of cases related to addiction, mental illness, and low-level felonies. Deal said he knew changes had to happen.

Along with the General Assembly, he vastly expanded accountability courts, added education and job training to state prisons, reclassified some felony classes as misdemeanors, and overhauled the troubled juvenile justice system.

He methodically advanced a series of proposals in each of the following seven years as governor, all with the goal of keeping nonviolent offenders out of lengthy prison sentences, while getting to the root of violent crime. Crime rates steadily fell, offenders were increasingly diverted to accountability courts, and state spending on prisons decreased.

Deal didn’t get everything he wanted, but by the time he left office, his legacy of advancing progressive criminal justice measures, even as a Republican governor, was cemented.

But with murder rates climbing in Georgia over the last three years, and what the Georgia Bureau of Investigation calls “logarithmic growth” in incidents of gang violence, lawmakers are now debating a series of proposals to push mandatory minimum sentences for gang recruiting and gun crimes. Additional bills would create stricter oversight of local prosecutors and limit no-cash bail options.

Whether any of the measures will unwind the changes Deal made remains to be seen, since many of Deal’s changes focused on non-violent offenders.

But I spoke with the former governor this week to hear what he thinks lawmakers should know from his own experience as they consider changes to the state’s criminal code.

“It’s hard to have a holistic approach to something that is as volatile as criminal justice,” he said. “But it does require a holistic approach. There is no magic bullet. There is no secret formula.”

The holistic approach Deal took looked at the reasons why people broke the law to what they’d do upon release from incarceration. A 15-member Criminal Justice Reform Council gathered data and made recommendations to the General Assembly for possible solutions each year.

The bipartisan group included lawyers, judges, activists and executives, often with different opinions, which was key to the process, Deal said.

“It’s important to have different points of view and you need to hear from people who know what they’re talking about,” he said.

On the specifics of what the General Assembly is doing now, Deal stressed that he had no criticism for Kemp or lawmakers. But he also said he learned that for every consequence one new law creates, there is an unintended consequence lawmakers should consider before they move forward.

“Gang violence is a danger to our children and it deserves to be addressed,” he said. “On the other side of that coin, one of the big problems inside the prison system is gang activity. If you’re going to send more gang members into the prison system, you’re going to have to put some more money and more personnel inside the prison system to deal with a problem that you may be exacerbating there.”

He also said the data and annual reviews from his criminal justice council were crucial as he planned broad, but incremental changes throughout his two terms. Deal’s council expired when he left office and has not been recreated.

Kemp’s response to rising crime rates has included creating a Gang Task Force unit within the GBI designed to focus specifically on gang activity, which also informed his crime-focused proposals this year.

If Deal could do anything to tackle crime rates today, he said he would try again to address struggling or failing schools, something he tried, but failed to do as governor.

“Where are these gangs coming from? Who is being recruited?” Deal said. “I believe that if you were to make a correlation between chronically failing schools and the judicial circuits, along with the number of commitments to our state prison system, there would be a striking similarity.”

Focusing on education and children’s home lives was the same advice state senators got earlier this month at the hearing on mandatory sentences for gang recruiting, which can often include siblings persuading younger brothers or sisters to join them in a gang.

State Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican who was a member of Deal’s judicial reform council, asked a witness which tools the state has left to stop the recruitment of young children into gangs, if not mandatory minimums.

“We’ve tried the rehabilitation route. We’ve tried ‘three strikes and you’re out.’ We’ve tried harsher penalties,” he said. “If you were up here, what would you do to solve this problem, or help?”

State Sen. Harold Jones, a Democrat from Augusta, said lawmakers know core issues of poverty or mental illness are contributing to gang recruitment, but they focus on sentencing as the fastest fix instead.

“Ten years later, same problems,” he said. “When do we stop just going in circles with this crime issue?”

State Sen. Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican, said sentencing may be the only way to keep the larger public safe from the worst of the worst offenders.

But the challenge, Deal learned, is understanding which criminals or crimes are the most serious, and which are not, and to legislate accordingly.

The mandatory minimum bill passed the state Senate this week and will soon be considered by the state House.