This week’s Courier Herald Column:
The Georgia General Assembly convenes next week for what is expected to be one of the shortest sessions in recent memory. Those at the Capitol are whispering at the over/under date of St. Patrick’s Day as to when the business at hand will be concluded. This, after all, is an election year. With an early primary date of May 20th, legislators are anxious to end the session and return to fundraising.
As such, the amount of new initiatives under consideration is expected to be unusually light. There is the constitutionally required matter of the budget. There is the technical matter of voting to move the primary date for state offices to coincide with the one set by a federal judge for Congressional races. And there will be the signature legislation from Governor Deal who is himself standing for reelection with both primary and general election challengers.
Governor Deal is once again focusing on criminal justice reform, with his third phase of legislation aimed at helping those who have done their time re-enter the workforce. The inability of released prisoners to find jobs or employers willing to even consider hiring them has been one of the underlying themes of these initiatives. Those with these significant marks on their permanent record remain unemployed or underemployed for life – costing the state significant tax dollars in public assistance well after the costs of incarceration have been incurred.
Previous initiatives proposed by the Governor and now signed into law include sentencing reform, which moved many crimes from felonies to misdemeanors while stiffening the penalties of some felonies. The Governor also successfully moved a juvenile justice reform measure through the legislature during last year’s session.
Deal’s new initiative will involve hiring additional personnel to help ex-offenders find housing, as well as prohibiting some state agencies from excluding those with criminal records when hiring. More specifics regarding the details of the Governor’s proposal are expected during the State of the State address.
Deal noted in a preview to the Atlanta Rotary Club that his series of initiatives are “not something a Republican Governor should do.” This was a tacit acknowledgement of the delicate nature of finding pragmatic solutions to the state’s escalating cost of incarcerating prisoners – and managing the future costs to the state that former prisoners represent both in direct public assistance as well as lost tax revenue from reduced future earnings. Georgia is, after all, a “tough on crime” state.
Thus, even the Governor’s signature agenda legislation is not immune to the election calendar and the campaigns that come with it. The proposal is already a campaign issue in the Congressional race for Georgia’s first district to replace Jack Kingston. State Senator Buddy Carter, arguably the race’s front runner, is also the chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee. He supports the Governor’s efforts, and would also like to see consideration of job training for inmates as well as incentives for companies who hire released inmates.
This, by rule of campaigning, has earned Republican Carter the label of “liberal” by one of his opponents, Dr. Bob Johnson. Referring to “Carter’s liberal agenda for Georgia”, Johnson’s campaign asks via press release “Our campaign respectfully requests that Senator Carter quit advocating the use of tax dollars to give criminals a leg up on law-abiding and hard-working Georgians searching for stable employment.”
And therein lies the problem for the Governor – And Republicans in general – as they move forward for a legislative session, campaign season, and presumably, four more years of governing. There is no act that can be proposed that someone won’t be able to find criticism with.
Campaigning is easy, but governing is hard. That’s one of the reasons that too many elected officials at all levels prefer to stay in permanent campaign mode. Governing, after all, requires balanced budgets and actual votes on policy. Votes that can be criticized.
Yet those demanding fiscal conservatism cannot overlook the direct and indirect costs presented by incarceration and the years that follow. The choice is to continue to spend more, or find ways to minimize the costs while still ensuring that debts to society can be paid.
It’s easy to type out a press release and call someone a liberal. It’s a lot harder to make the tough choices necessary to govern roughly ten million Georgians.