The single most important accomplishment of the 2012 General Assembly will probably prove to be its far-reaching reform of the Georgia criminal justice system.
“I firmly believe this is a better way to govern our criminal justice system,” Gov. Nathan Deal, an early proponent and architect of the change, said after the bill’s final passage. “It’s win-win: saving lives and saving money. It’s a great change for Georgia.”
The bill recognizes that the state Department of Corrections, which runs our prisons, actually does very little in the way of correcting. Records show that roughly one in three people released from state prison are back in prison within three years, and the reasons aren’t hard to imagine.
A prison record makes it hard to find honest work, especially in a tough economy where even those with spotless records have a hard time getting a job. A lengthy prison term erodes whatever family, economic and social ties the prisoner might have been able to fall back on. And too often, the prison experience hones rather than dulls an inclination toward crime. (All that said, in cases of violent or repeat offenders, a long prison sentence remains the right option.)
Among other things, the bill now awaiting Deal’s signature will begin to divert non-violent offenders on drug and property crimes away from expensive state prison beds and into alternative treatment programs. The state’s parole and probation systems will be bolstered to more closely monitor those who otherwise might be in prison, and those who have been arrested but cleared of crimes will have those records sealed from prospective employers.
All in all, it’s a far-sighted reform that builds on pilot programs here in Georgia and on reforms adopted in other states. And to be frank, it’s more than a little surprising to see a bill that reduces prison sentences for some crimes pass so easily in the Georgia Legislature. (It was approved without a dissenting vote in both the House and Senate.)
That’s testimony to two factors. First, as Deal noted in his inauguration speech back in January 2011, “it cost about $3 million per day to operate our Department of Corrections,” and that cost was projected to rise by $264 million over the next five years. Georgia simply can’t afford to be needlessly punitive any longer.
The second factor is Deal himself. Since taking office, he has worked patiently to unite legislators, judges, prosecutors and others behind the bill, fending off any attempt to turn the issue into a political football. It’s a feat that a Democratic governor would have had a hard time achieving without being attacked as soft on crime, and after barely a year in office, it gives Deal a better record of accomplishment than Sonny Perdue achieved in eight years.
Unfortunately, other examples of success in the recent legislative session are hard to come by. The list essentially amounts to bad bills that have passed but aren’t as bad as they might have been, and terrible bills that had strong backing yet were somehow prevented from passage.
For example, a bill limiting a woman’s right to an abortion to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy has passed and will become law, but without a barbaric provision that would have forced pregnant women to give birth to fetuses that were doomed to die upon birth.
The Legislature also approved a constitutional amendment allowing the state to establish charter schools even over the protest of local school districts. However, the final version does add safeguards to protect funding for traditional public schools. The measure goes on the ballot for approval by voters in November.
Despite those changes, opponents of the measure still argue that it’s yet another step in a campaign to dismantle the public school system and replace it with taxpayer-funded vouchers. They’re right; it is exactly that. And if opponents succeed in getting that message out this fall, it’s very possible that the measure will be rejected on those grounds by Georgia voters.
Besides ethics, the main area in which the Legislature failed to act at all was transportation, and that may come back to haunt the state. Legislators refused to give MARTA the support and flexibility it needs to survive, and they didn’t even take seriously the need to create a regional transit governance board for metro Atlanta. Those failures may make it difficult to convince voters to approve the regional T-Splost come July.