January 30, 2018 10:00 AM
“Unless we provide the appropriate tools of supervision that facilitate a successful reentry into society, history has shown that offenders simply return to the prison population. Right now in Georgia, nearly one in three leaving our prisons are reconvicted within three years.
We must shut this revolving door! This is something we can do and with your help we will!”
Such was Governor Deal’s conviction in his 2012 State of the State speech. Now, as he nears the end of his eight years in office, his faith has been rewarded.
For the first time in decades, the rates of incarceration of African-American prisoners are moving closer to parity with white counterparts. In the previous eight years, prison admissions are down by 19% among all prisoners and almost 30% among African-American prisoners. The decline among African-American incarceration is particularly striking as African American prisoners make up a supermajority of Georgia’s approximately 52,000 prisoners, despite making up only a third of the state’s population.
The context of these reforms are astounding. In 2009, a Pew Study found that one in thirteen Georgians were under some form of correctional control, the highest in the nation. Georgia was ranked fourth in incarceration rates, behind only Deep South neighbors Louisiana and Mississippi and perennial outlier the District of Columbia. We led the nation in tough on crime.
That is, until Governor Deal made it a priority to charter a different course. In his first year in office, Governor Deal pushed for legislation to create the Criminal Justice Reform Council, which proposed a system of drug courts and mental health courts in order to offer an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders. In every year since, the Governor’s Office has pushed further reforms including expanding prison GED programs and executive actions to Ban the Box on state job applications.
The drop in prison populations has been accompanied by a reduction in the crime rate. From 2010 to 2016, property crime in the United States dropped by about 13%, while violent crime rates have plateaued. Despite imprisoning 8,000 fewer people than originally projected when Governor Deal took office, Georgia has matched the national trend.
These reforms have been particularly effective at addressing racial disparities. In 2010, African-Americans made up more than half their proportionate share of Georgia’s prisoners. Nationwide, 34% of America’s prisoners are black, while only about 16% of the population is. According to data provided by the NAACP, African-Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses at about six times the rate of Caucasian Americans, despite similar self-reported levels of drug use. Additionally, African-American children make up more than half of juvenile cases moved to criminal court.
The statistics go on and on, and they are familiar. There is a constant and righteous drum beat against this system of imprisonment, made up of books and journalism and Emmy-wins striking at it with familiar rhythm. Quietly, there’s another beat behind it, a softer cadence of praise from left-leaning writers about the Governor who is doing something about it.
But move past the statistics and it is a human story of second chances and personal responsibility. Read the stories cited throughout and you’ll see the stories of thousands distilled into individuals: the parent who is home for their children, the addict who is finally clean, and the former criminal determined to hold down a steady job. You’ll see the difference that better public policy, and a man willing to fight for it, can have in our neighbors’ lives.