In a national political climate characterized by gridlock and partisan hostility, there are few issues with the power to unite people across the ideological spectrum. One of the areas where broad agreement has emerged, however, is the need for substantive criminal justice reform.
On March 26, 600 representatives from across the political spectrum gathered in Washington, D.C. at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform to address the fiscal and social costs that stem from the mass incarceration of Americans. But as attendees acknowledged, this noble endeavor brings with it significant challenges. These include how to win the debate and what proposed reforms should be enacted in order to address the countless non-violent offenders who are sentenced to long terms in prison.
Thanks to federalism, leaders in Washington are not starting from a blank slate. Georgia has already sketched out a path to progress.
That same day, the Charles Koch Institute hosted a discussion in Atlanta with a unique coalition featuring the NAACP of Georgia, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Georgia Center for Opportunity and the Georgia Justice Project to highlight not just how to win the debate and what reforms to implement, but also to showcase what already appears to be working.
While other states and the federal government wrestle with high recidivism and out-of-control corrections spending, Georgia has already passed legislation to tackle over-incarceration. It is also seeking ways in which it can increase opportunity and well-being for ex-felons by reintegrating them back into society. Importantly, this was done with broad bipartisan support and without compromising public safety. But what started off as a plan to address a fiscal crisis is now being viewed as a template for reform. Georgia has already begun seeing the fruits of its proactive stance on reform in reduced prison overcrowding and lower corrections costs.
In just five years Georgia has seen its adult prison population fall from approximately 60,000 inmates to 53,000. This has largely been the result of community-based initiatives that assess and divert non-violent offenders into the programs best placed to aid rehabilitation and reduce recidivism. In the past, jails and prisons were often used as depositories for individuals who posed no physical threat to others, resulting in severe overcrowding. For example, a Georgia man arrested for loitering spent 13 months in jail before seeing a lawyer or even being formally charged. With the focus now shifting to targeting the violent, jail overcrowding has been nearly eliminated, and the proportion of offenders in prison for violent crimes has risen from 58% to 64% between 2009 and 2013.
The lesson appears to be clear: there are more productive ways to deal with non-violent offenders than filling expensive prison cells.
Georgia isn’t the only place experimenting with reform. Reform leaders in Texas, Indiana, Ohio, and Utah have had some success in advancing policies that reverse a “prison first” approach for non-violent offenses that should instead be dealt with through other community programs or even decriminalized entirely. Some states, including Georgia, have also empowered judges with additional discretion so that they can avoid punishing non-violent offenders with deeply damaging and ineffective mandatory minimum sentencing.
Georgia has started to reconcile its destructive past policies and charted the way forward to ensure that the system actually meets its obligation to serve justice. While tremendously encouraging, the organizations that participated in the Atlanta panel acknowledged there is plenty of work still to be done, especially to address the strong collateral consequences and stigmas associated with a criminal record. These include the occupational barriers to entry for ex-felons who have a desire to start up a business or simply join the workforce and become productive members of society.
Georgia regularly prohibits felons from working in around 80 professions, even if their original crime had nothing to do with their desired occupation. For example, an individual who has been charged with any felony or crime involving “moral turpitude” can be denied a license to practice in many professions such as a barber, plumber, and electrical engineer. Given the fact that employment can play a key role in an individual staying out of the corrections system, this seems like an obvious missed opportunity.
At the Washington summit, Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal spoke of the reform successes he had witnessed, including watching people graduate from drug courts who might otherwise still be incarcerated for years to come. This raises the question of what other policies might outperform imprisonment if given a chance, and what kind of outcomes Americans have a right to expect from their criminal justice system.
The willingness of a state long known for tough sentencing policies to address the issue of mass incarceration while still preserving public safety speaks volumes to the potential to make substantive progress on the issue. With the need for reform gaining acceptance nationwide, leaders at both the state and federal level have a unique opportunity to advance policy changes that will have a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders and their families. This approach will enshrine the dignity of the individual as a pillar of our criminal justice system and help pave the way to the kind of country we could be.
Enea Gjoza and Ewan Watt both specialize in criminal justice reform at the Charles Koch Institute.