Georgia conservatives expected to make a case for criminal justice reform

By Saba Long

Georgia’s governor has practiced a pragmatic ebb and flow on a number of public policy issues during his first term.

Since the summer of 2011, Gov. Nathan Deal and the state have been quietly tackling an issue Republicans have historically ceded the floor on –— criminal justice reform, particularly for juveniles. It’s a problem too expensive to ignore, and conservative groups across the country are now championing such reform in the name of smarter and smaller government spending.

The bipartisan Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians has partnered with the Pew Center on States, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the nonpartisan public policy Crime & Justice Institute.

State Reps. Stacey Abrams (D- District 84) and Wendell Willard (R- District 49) serve on the Council along with numerous officials from the departments of Juvenile Justice, Corrections, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles as well as sitting judges.

The same state agencies that will be carrying out these recommendations have also been stymied by budget cuts in the name of austerity. If the state is unwilling to pay to replace crumbling bridges, it is likely they will resort to merely implement the low-hanging fruit recommendations of the Council while tabling the more costly changes.

Even so, the Council has laid a path for true criminal justice reform in Georgia that should receive bipartisan support from the General Assembly.

From a public safety angle, reforming our criminal justice system means reducing the number of criminals and the frequency in which they commit crimes. This translates into a reduction in taxpayer dollars funding what has long been a broken system. The intangible benefit of course is a safer community.

At the end of the day, this reform effort is being driven by the state’s expected savings of more than $88 million through 2018. The projected reduction of offenders is more than 600 over the next six years.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation founded Right On Crime to implement the conservative case for criminal justice reform — to fight crime, prioritize victims and protect taxpayers — primarily at the state level. Participating governments include Georgia, Kentucky, Indiana, Arkansas and Ohio, to name a few.

From their website, “Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) says his colleagues need to take a closer look at the cost-effectiveness of their programs, stating: ‘I don’t think we ought to let public safety depend on getting a bargain basement price, but I think we do have to be conscious of the cost of incarceration.’”

The Council has submitted two policy goals to the General Assembly. They are:

1. Focus the state’s out-of-home facilities on higher-risk, serious offenders and

2. Reduce recidivism by strengthening evidence-based community supervision and programs.

To achieve said goals, it has listed 15 recommendations that will amount to a serious overhaul of the criminal justice process.

A recommendation of interest to city and county governments is to implement a performance incentive structure. A portion of the savings the state incurs as a result of county efforts to curb crime will be returned to the county in the form of a grant program to fund community-based alternatives for juvenile offenders.

For adult offenders, the Council’s report lists nine recommendations including requiring those on parole or probation to pay for their drug tests; to award conditional driver’s licenses for accountability court participants; and to develop a risk assessment tool for non-violent drug and property offenders.

A majority of the Council’s recommendations center around the need for concrete data — a notorious problem in the public sector — to allow for metrics, accountability and consistency across our numerous local and county governments.

An accountable and fiscally responsible government is after all the conservative way. Let’s see if this approach will work.

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