Justice Reforms An Agenda Item And Campaign Issue

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.


  1. Lea Thrace says:

    Stellar column Charlie. I must admit that Governor Deal gives me the fits. I want to dislike him so much for his ethical “challenges” but his work on Justice reform has been/will be such a positive endeavor for this state.

    And as far as the liberal charge for those trying to make reforms, I ask whether those making the charge have looked at the net positive fiscal effects for the state. This kind of reform is what being a conservative should be about. Republicans just cannot seem to get out of their own way!

  2. saltycracker says:

    Criminal justice reform: We cannot continue to ignore the gorilla and the golden goose in the room. Reform the drug laws. Draw the line in the sand between criminal and health issues. Where ever they can agree. For sure it is time to legalize marijuana to some level, control it, regulate it, tax it.

    It’ll be a difficult political decision, as we have public empires centered around drug enforcement. Look for the politically correct answer, we need to throw more money at this.

  3. Three Jack says:

    If the ethically challenged governor wants to decrease the cost of government justice, then decriminalize marijuana and give pardons to those non-violent offenders serving long sentences for violating the GCSA.

    Beyond that, GA does not need yet another new job training agency to train ex-cons. Let them sign up for one or more of the many government (taxpayer) sponsored programs already in place dedicated to providing education for the under-educated.

    • Charlie says:

      I don’t think the discussion is about a new post-prison training system, but figuring out how to better utilize their time while in prison.

      Let’s go back to the recent numbers out of the Office of Workforce Development. GA businesses had over 2,000 welding positions open, with a starting salary around $70,000. Problem is, it’s a specialized skill that requires training and an apprenticeship. And yet we don’t have enough folks wanting to go to technical schools to fill the need.

      Why not let those who are incarcerated train to be one of these folks? How about to be one of the 16,000 truck driving positions that are open?

      Do we really need to prove we’re “conservative” by making sure these people are miserable for the rest of their lives, AFTER they’ve spent 1-10 years paying for a mistake?

      • Three Jack says:


        I’m not trying to prove conservatism. But it seems to me that we sentence people to jail as punishment for acts commited against society. It is an age old debate as to how these criminals should be handled while incarcerated, but the first priority should be punishment, not education. If punished harshly enough, then maybe they will be incentivized to learn the intended lesson and become good citizens upon release.

        With regard to filling welding positions or truck drivers, maybe it would be a much better idea to work with various veterans groups to find viable candidates who served the country instead of being served by the country after violating laws.

        • xdog says:

          ” If punished harshly enough, then maybe they will be incentivized to learn the intended lesson and become good citizens upon release.”
          Look at the track record. That’s not happening.

          I like Deal’s proposals for ex-offenders and I like more his efforts to divert low-level offenders from prison.

            • Charlie says:

              Visit any of Georgia’s correctional facilities and ask how many people feel they are being coddled – Ask the corrections officers if they feel they’re coddling the prisoners. I’m sure the inmates would rather be about anywhere else.

            • xdog says:

              I’m with Charlie. What coddling? You’re not advocating we go back to renting out convict labor, are you?

              A guy I consider knowledgeable told me once that 1/3 of prisoners belong because they’re incapable of living under society’s rules, 1/3 are there because they scare us, and 1/3 are there because they’ve pissed us off. I’d like the state to do what it can to reduce that last group.

              • Three Jack says:

                Coddling – TV, 3 meals a day, work a little (if you want, otherwise just walk off the job), recreational time, library, I could go on. The only ‘punishment’ is being unable to leave the building.

                The ethically challenged governor already tried ‘renting out convict labor’, see the link I provided. The ‘labor’ didn’t like the job so they were able to refuse the work.

                Using your 1/3 breakdown of convicts, I would say at least 2/3 are better off in prison than on the street because they are not punished in prison. Reverse that equation and you reduce recidivism.

        • Jackster says:

          If your plan is to return these folks to society, they must be able to re-join. They cannot do that if they don’t work. THey are much more likely to relapse and end up back in jail.

          I think that’s the other metric they’re trying to address – recidivism.

  4. Jackster says:

    As it was noted in the Raising Min. Wage PP Discussion – http://www.peachpundit.com/2013/12/31/should-georgia-raise-the-minimum-wage/#comment-371410 by Jeff Pezold, “… I’ll say this: [background checks] HAVE gotten out of hand, but from a liability/insurance standpoint, it’s practically required if you want to have coverage.

    People sue (or threaten to sue) for EVERYTHING.”

    So with that in mind, will this legislation actually change the market place’s demand for the released/Paroled? Seems to me employers discriminate on these folks having a record, and an unstable job history (being unemployed for a long period of time.)

    Seems like The Guv isn’t willing to tackle the actual reasons behind why people don’t want to hire these folks. Maybe he should raise the min. wage instead.

  5. Ellynn says:

    “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.”

    I have yet to see a midterm election year where the Savannah St Patrick’s day parade was not filled with the elected (or want to be elected) poltical types riding in the back of convertables. I have seen all levels of local, state and national office holders drive past me, calling out friends and donners as they go along. Extra points to Buddy Carter and Jack Kingston who will get invites to the breakfast and openning mass with all the Catholic mover and shakers.

    Let the fights over rag tops begin!!!

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