Opinion: Criminal justice reform takes a beating in a U.S. Senate race

An exterior view in 2016 of Pulaski State Prison: the overall crime rate is down, the overall number of prisoners sent to stand prison is down, and the number of black inmates sent to prison is steadily declining as well. (Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com)



An exterior view in 2016 of Pulaski State Prison: the overall crime rate is down, the overall number of prisoners sent to stand prison is down, and the number of black inmates sent to prison is steadily declining as well. (Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com)

Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler and fellow partisan Doug Collins, the congressman from Gainesville, are in a brutal fight to survive what’s likely to be a first round of voting in a U.S. Senate contest.

There is always collateral damage in these internecine feuds. This time, one unfortunate casualty could be Republican support for criminal justice reform — the thought that locking up so many non-violent criminals doesn’t make sense, morally or financially.

When Loeffler beats Collins around the head and shoulders with her soft-on-crime stick, this is what’s at risk.

“It has just been gut-wrenching to watch. This strategy is catastrophic for Republicans across the board,” said Holly Harris, president and executive director of Judicial Action Network, a conservative group that has successfully pushed prison reform measures in various states, including Georgia, and at the federal level.

Harris is a lifelong Republican with Kentucky roots, and — let’s say this upfront — has a soft spot for Collins, for reasons we’ll get to in a bit. Her antipathy toward Loeffler is issue-based.

“It’s just mind-boggling to see this candidacy in Georgia that seeks to eviscerate all of the policy gains and political goodwill that was achieved through these reforms. It’s really going to affect the national narrative,” Harris said.

The bipartisan effort to reduce the size of this nation’s incarceration machine has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the last decade. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal was one of its GOP pioneers.

From 2009 to 2019, the number of offenders sent to Georgia prisons plunged by almost 19 percent. The number of African Americans locked up dropped by 30 percent. Costs went down, as did rates of recidivism.

Along the way, rather than a backlash among tough-on-crime Republicans, advocates found something else — political viability.

“We started to see in our polling that these reforms were really, really popular with women. We saw a strategy there that would really broaden the tent of support for these issues,” Harris said.

When Republicans lost control of the U.S. House in November 2018, a nationwide revolt by white suburban women was one of the major factors.

The very next month, Republicans, who still controlled the Senate, joined Democrats in passage of the First Step Act, which among other things granted judges more freedom from mandatory-minimum sentences, and expanded the ways nonviolent federal inmates could earn reductions in their sentences or speed release to half-way houses.

President Donald Trump signed it in a hurry. “He was a part of it, and he’s proud of it,” Harris said.

During the 2020 Super Bowl, Trump’s re-election campaign launched a TV spot featuring a Black woman who was facing life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense — until Trump commuted her sentence.

But we are wandering away from Doug Collins and Kelly Loeffler. “First Step doesn’t get done without Doug Collins. It just doesn’t. His work across the aisle was pivotal,” Harris said.

It is possible that many of you only know the Doug Collins who served as Trump’s rapid-fire attack dog on the House Judiciary Committee, during last year’s impeachment hearings.

But before that, criminal justice reform was his calling card in Washington — through his partnership with U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York.

What Nathan Deal accomplished in Georgia, Collins wanted to replicate in the federal system. It was a cause that couldn’t be advanced by shouting.

“We do not need jails that are mental health facilities. We need jails to put people in that we are scared of, not those that we are mad at,” said Collins, a pastor and lawyer, at a 2017 D.C. seminar sponsored by Harris' group.

“It takes an attitude to realize that you can be firm and tender in the same hug. Too many of us just think that we have to be firm,” Collins said.

If you haven’t heard Collins say this recently, it may be because it’s not the kind of language that wins GOP primaries in Georgia — and that’s essentially what this Republican-on-Republican portion of the special election for U.S. Senate has become. Criminal justice reform requires the language of a general election.

On many fronts, Collins' decision to challenge Loeffler immediately put that issue on the spot. But there was some holding back.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC controlled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is spending millions to defend Loeffler. In March, when the SLF leveled its soft-on-crime attack on Collins, it couldn’t cite the First Step Act without also indicting many members of the Senate Republican caucus.

Instead, it went back to 2008, when Collins was in the state Legislature. The PAC cited a one-page, Republican-authored bill that Collins supported – though it never passed. The measure would have made it easier for Georgia juries to declare a murderer “guilty but mentally retarded,” and thus spare the accused from execution.

Why? Because state Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, had also signed onto the bill.

Another outside group supporting Loeffler hasn’t had the same qualms. Georgia United Victory PAC is a political action committee financed in large part by Loeffler’s husband, Jeffrey Craig Sprecher, chairman and CEO of Intercontinental Exchange, and chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.

It has produced a glossy magazine that at one point highlights Loeffler and the protests that followed the Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Madison, Wisc.

“As lawlessness and mayhem swept across Democrat-run cities, Sen. Loeffler took immediate action to restore law and order to our communities,” readers are told. Then they are quickly hit with this:

“Rep. Collins has been a leading advocate for criminal justice reform. In 2008, he worked with then-Rep. Stacey Abrams to provide greater flexibility to seek lesser charges against criminals. Later while serving in Congress, he worked with Democratic Impeachment Manager Hakeem Jeffries to pass the First Step Act.”

Which, as we said, was signed by President Trump. We reached out to the Loeffler campaign for the candidate’s position on criminal justice reform — but have not heard back.

Yet we should note that U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who has been on the campaign trail with Loeffler, was a fierce opponent of the First Step Act. And when similar legislation was introduced during the Barack Obama years, Cotton was quoted as saying, “If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.”

How this will play out is anyone’s guess. But it is probable that either Loeffler or Collins will meet Democrat Raphael Warnock in a Jan. 5 runoff. And Warnock is very much in favor of prison reform.

Holly Harris, she of the Judicial Action Network, would point her fellow Republicans to Gov. John Bel Edwards' re-election victory in Louisiana last year. Edwards is a Democrat. Republican Eddie Rispone, a self-funding businessman, tried to use Edward’s advocacy for prison reform against him with soft-on-crime attacks.

The tactic didn’t work. Women didn’t like it. “Republicans conceded a deep red state that will absolutely go for Donald Trump,” Harris said.