Guest Column

Deal getting it right on criminal justice

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to interview Georgia’s governor. As you might guess, I was most interested in the criminal justice reforms that he and his administration have spearheaded since he took office. 

I was under the impression that Governor Deal got the idea about criminal justice reform from our sister state of Texas. While Texas does have some similar criminal justice reforms, Deal actually became committed to the idea of justice reform and reinvestment on the campaign trail for governor.

 “After hearing from a multitude of legislators, citizens and even probationers and parolees, I realized that Georgia citizens were not getting a good return on their taxpayer dollars when it came to adult corrections and juvenile justice. A prison bed costs over $18,000 per year; the entire budget for the Department of Corrections is over $1 billion. Yet the recidivism rate among adult offenders is about 35%. A bed in a secure facility operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice costs $90,000 per year, but the recidivism rate hovers around 50%. That’s not good fiscal policy nor is that good public safety policy. Our communities and the state as a whole deserved better.”

Governor Deal went on to say, “In 2012, I partnered with the Pew Center on the States to provide technical assistance to the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Pew came to the table with enormous expertise on these issues because of work they had done in other states. The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, co-chaired by Judge Mike Boggs of the Georgia Court of Appeals and Thomas Worthy, my Deputy Executive Counsel, included stakeholders that represented all viewpoints and provided a great deal of expertise in their own right. The Council carefully vetted a multitude of ideas, best practices and other suggestions. Some recommendations ultimately made by the Council, which subsequently became law, were similar to those already done by Texas and Ohio. But every recommendation was shaped and tweaked to serve the unique needs of Georgia.”

I was also interested in Deal’s opinion on the value of drug and mental health courts since I have clients enrolled in both and because his son, Judge Jason Deal, presides over the drug court in Hall County. I also believe that drug courts save lives and money. 

Deal wholeheartedly agreed with me that drug courts save lives and taxpayer money. 

“I have seen it with my own eyes through closely following and watching Jason’s efforts (Judge Jason Deal) in his own court. I’ve spoken at many of his drug court graduations. A systematic and sustainable statewide accountability court system is vital. As a result, my FY2013 and FY2014 budgets both contained approximately $11 million available to create or grow accountability courts around the state. My goal is to have accountability courts available in every judicial district of the state,” he said.

According to Governor Deal, these reforms are indeed saving our state money as well. “The data analyses and projections show that that the 2012 reforms (HB 1176) will save the state $264 million over five years. The 2013 reforms (HB 242 and HB 349) are estimated to save the state $85 million over five years. Some of these savings will continue to be reinvested into communities to provide services to the appropriate low-risk nonviolent offenders with the hope that we are giving them the tools to be productive, law-abiding, tax-paying members of society.”

At the end of our interview, Governor Deal wanted to make clear his general beliefs about the interaction of government and the criminal justice system. Governor Deal said, “I believe in the conservative values of small government. To that end, the most basic and solemn obligations of your state government is to protect its citizens and educate its children. These reforms sit at the crossroads of those two obligations. A “lock ‘em all up and throw away the key” mentality is not making our state safer nor can we afford it. These reforms are good first steps and we will continue to be looking at these topics as long as I am Governor. By identifying the low-risk nonviolent offenders who can be steered away from a life of crime by providing the appropriate services, we can ensure that our finite supply of expensive prison resources is used for those offenders that society can no longer tolerate.”

As a citizen, voter, and father of two boys, I must say that I could not agree more.

(Jason W. Swindle Sr. is a criminal defense attorney who practices in Coweta County.)

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