By Nathan Deal
During the 1980s and ’90s, Georgia adopted laws that put more offenders behind bars for longer periods of time. The “get-tough” movement was built on the best intentions and it succeeded in removing many dangerous criminals from our streets.
We now spend $1.1 billion a year of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars on our adult corrections system and another $300 million on our juvenile system. For me, every penny of that would be worth it if we knew it was being used most efficiently and effectively to keep our communities safe.
But it is not.
Public safety is our first priority. In Georgia, if you are responsible for a serious, violent crime, we will put you away. But research has identified new strategies like drug courts that are more effective and much less expensive than prison for many nonviolent offenders.
Last legislative session, the General Assembly enacted a sweeping set of reforms in our criminal justice system. These reforms are already starting to show results, and this year we’re aiming to build on that progress.
This session, we are working on a comprehensive overhaul of our juvenile system that would target our resources and prevent minor offenders from graduating to more serious crimes.
In addition, we are continuing our reforms of the adult corrections system. We need to restore to judges some of the discretion they lost to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In certain cases, judges are required to impose a mandatory minimum sentence no matter what the circumstances. Rigid rules with no exceptions create unintended (and sometimes ridiculous) consequences.
Unfortunately, in the push to be tough on crime, we backed ourselves into a corner where a young man who holds up a store with a water gun can be locked away for the same amount of time as a young man who carried a semi-automatic weapon.
While all offenders must be held accountable, we have to differentiate between the criminals we’re mad at and those we’re scared of.
Legislation under consideration would allow our judges, who understand the law and the facts surrounding each individual case, flexibility to deviate from certain mandatory minimums in truly exceptional circumstances.
However, the exceptions are very limited with clear criteria for who would qualify for such a deviation. And the judge’s discretion is limited because they would still have to give prison time.
Serious, violent offenders need to be behind bars. Those are the offenders that mandatory minimums were designed to deal with effectively. But this legislation provides a more-common-sense approach to a limited set of cases.
We have taken remarkable steps forward toward a safer, smarter criminal justice system. I look forward to working with the General Assembly on reforms that boost public safety and reduce the cost to taxpayers.
Nathan Deal is Georgia’s governor.