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A Republican Governor Is Leading the Country's Most Successful Prison Reform

Davis Turner / Getty Images

During his second inaugural address this past January, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal shared the story of Sean Walker. After serving 12 years of a life sentence for murder, Walker was paroled in 2005 and began working in the governor’s mansion while in a state transitional center. At the time of Deal’s address, Walker was working for Goodwill as a banquet catering sales coordinator and was nominated for Goodwill International Employee of the Year. As of January, Walker was planning to take college courses with the hope of becoming a counselor.

Deal, who got to know Walker at the governor’s mansion, shared the story to underscore his own “message to those in our prison system and to their families: If you pay your dues to society, if you take advantage of the opportunities to better yourself, if you discipline yourself so that you can regain your freedom and live by the rules of society, you will be given the chance to reclaim your life.” He continued, “I intend for Georgia to continue leading the nation with meaningful justice reform.”

That last sentence could seem at best like optimism, and at worst like hyperbole. However, one could reasonably argue that Georgia is doing more to reform its criminal justice system than any other state in the country—from sentencing to felon employment after release to juvenile detention.

Over the last four years, mandatory sentencing minimums have been modified, and judges’ discretion in sentencing has been expanded. The adult prison population has been given enhanced access to educational resources, including a program that enables two charter schools in the state to go into prisons to teach inmates, and those participating earn a high school diploma instead of a GED. (Studies suggest that some recipients of a GED tend not to fare any better in employment prospects than high school dropouts do.)

In addition, inmates with felonies applying to work for the state no longer have to check a box on their job applications that discloses their criminal histories and would often disqualify them from being considered for a job from the outset. “We banned the box,” said Deal. “It is not going to affect them getting an interview.” The state has also invested $17 million into measures aimed at reducing recidivism and rehabilitating low-risk, nonviolent offenders—including expanding accountability courts like those for drug use and DUIs, and funding community-based programs that have already proven to be more cost-effective than a prison sentence and are designed to reduce crime in the long run.

Another set of initiatives focused exclusively on the juvenile justice system in Georgia, which, as of 2013, was spending $91,000 on each juvenile inmate per year and still seeing a 65 percent recidivism rate. Standardized assessment tools were designed to help judges determine the risk levels of juvenile offenders. Judges have also been given more discretion in sentencing juveniles. “Unruly children”—the descriptor ascribed to children with status offenses like truancy and violating curfew—are no longer sent to detention centers and instead are classified as “Children in Need of Services” for whom treatment and service plans can be developed by the Division of Family and Children Services, law enforcement, and the Department of Juvenile Justice. In 2014, 49 of Georgia’s 159 counties participated in a nine-month grant program targeting at-risk youth. The program aimed to reduce felony commitments and short-term program placement by 15 percent, but by the grant program’s conclusion in October of that year, felonies and placements were down, instead, by 62 percent. Sixty counties in Georgia are now participating in a second phase of that program, which services 70 percent of Georgia’s at-risk youth. Georgia’s statewide secure juvenile population has dropped 14 percent since these programs were implemented, and the state took two detention centers off line.

Some, like Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy analyst at Right on Crime and at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, label Georgia’s criminal justice reforms conservative because they are saving the state millions, putting them in line with conservative fiscal values. Others, like Alison Holcomb, the national director of ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration, call the reforms expansive for their holistic agenda—with improving educational and re-entry opportunities for inmates at the top of the list. The reforms have been called innovative, though some argue that it isn’t the reform initiatives themselves, so much as the way they’re being applied together that is unprecedented.

And some literally call the governor’s office. “Our staff have been contacted by staff in other states wanting to know what we’re doing and if they can use it in their states,” Deal told me recently during a phone interview.

Overall, since he was elected at the end of 2010, Georgia’s incarcerated population dropped from an estimated 56,432 to 53,383 at the start of this year. That reduction virtually slashed the state’s backlog of inmates in county jails who were waiting to be transferred to a prison or probation detention center. Keeping inmates in local jails typically cost the state $20 million annually. Without the backlog, the cost associated with transferring inmates “plummeted to $40,720,” per the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform February 2015 report.

With all of this quantifiable progress in Georgia, it’s no wonder that the day before we spoke, Deal gave the keynote lunch speech at the summit on criminal justice reform co-hosted last Thursday by figures from across the partisan spectrum: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; political consultant Donna Brazile; Rebuild the Dream founder Van Jones, a former Obama environmental adviser; and Pat Nolan, the director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform. Deal spoke between David Simon, creator of the classic HBO series “The Wire,” and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison—and somehow managed to deliver remarks that stood out the most. He broke down the major initiatives that the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform has been focused on since the spring of 2011, when he signed a bill to create the special council during his first few months in office. After sharing the dramatic results he was seeing in Georgia, Deal began crying as he discussed drug court graduations. His oldest son is a drug court judge in Georgia, and that system’s success in changing people’s lives is what first prompted Deal’s interest in statewide criminal justice reform.

At the summit, Deal recalled bringing up criminal justice reform during his first state of the state. “A lot of people said that’s not a topic that a Republican governor ought to be talking about,” he said. It was a pressing and perplexing problem, as Georgia was the tenth most populous state in the country at the time, and yet had the fourth largest incarcerated population. “I would address an audience like this: ‘Do you realize that one out of every 13 Georgians is under some kind of correctional supervision?’” Deal said last week at the summit. “They would sit there with their mouths open… start looking around the table trying to figure out who at the table is under correctional supervision.”

Between 1990 and 2011, Georgia’s prison population had doubled to nearly 56,000, and was expected to continue growing—a situation described as “unsustainable” by Jessica Jackson, co-founder of Dream Corps’s program #cut50, which is working to reduce the incarcerated population by 50 percent. In his summit remarks, Deal recalled being told early in his first gubernatorial term that the state needed to build two more juvenile facilities and two more adult facilities, that the state’s inmate population was estimated to increase by 8 percent over the next five years, and that the Georgia Council on Criminal Reform estimated the projected cost of expanding the state’s prison capacity to be $264 million. Naturally, Deal asked about the state’s recidivism rate. He was told that one out of every three adult inmates was back within three years or less. For juvenile inmates, one in two came back, often as adult offenders. Given that seven out of ten inmates didn’t have a high school diploma or a GED, Deal recalled thinking, “They have no diploma, no marketable skills, and have been associating with hardened criminals—it’s a wonder we don’t have a higher rate of recidivism.”

States are often called laboratories of democracy, and Deal was determined to experiment with criminal justice reform in what he calls “the laboratory of Georgia” by combining a number of policy and reform initiatives simultaneously. When I asked Deal if the Special Council looked to any other states for models, he said there weren’t any previous models. “We knew Texas had made some reforms, but this was of our own initiative,” he told me. “What will it take and how can we make it work?”

“Because it has had a disproportionately high incarceration rate, because it’s in the South, because it’s Republican,” Holcomb said, “people aren’t expecting criminal justice reform to come out of states with those characteristics.” But Georgia has indeed become what she calls “a leader state.” Reddy agrees. “Georgia, in some ways, had no where to go but up,” he said, “[but] they did do some noteworthy, impressive things that other states that are in a better situation could learn from.”

Jackson was unequivocal in her praise of Georgia’s reforms, which she called particularly innovative. “In terms of the national political context,” she said, “federal elected officials and legislators in other states should be looking to places like Georgia as examples and test cases that prove we can safely and smartly reduce incarceration.” Deal couldn’t agree more. “We certainly don’t have a corner on the market,” he told me. In the meantime, he says that Georgia will “continue to flesh out [the] reforms already in place,” and cited sentencing reform and expanding in the juvenile arena as top priorities.

Reddy noted Georgia’s swelling population—it’s now the eighth most populous state in the country—and what he called its status as a major conservative state, the most significant after Texas and Florida. “Georgia is a real, genuine success story,” he said. “What they do really makes a difference and will be looked at by other states and other conservatives across the nation.”

Even those conservatives who see prison and sentencing reform as primarily a liberal priority? He added, “The people who implemented these reforms, like Deal, would not consider them progressive. You could view these reforms as progressive or conservative or technocratic.” However you’d label them, they’re working.