By Maggie Lee
The candidates who are running to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal are splitting on what’s probably the incumbent’s marquee policy: changes to the criminal justice system that have driven down the state’s prison population.
Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp both praised years of work by Deal and his Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform. That includes things like reducing some mandatory minimum sentences, more spending on education for folks who are getting out of prison, and much more. Deal’s point is to reserve expensive prison beds for the most dangerous folks, and channel others to training, rehabilitation and hopefully away from wrongdoing.
But on Tuesday night in their first face-to-face debate, the candidates split on issues from voting administration to health care and more. Abrams, Kemp and Libertarian Ted Metz varied too on what they would propose to the next Legislature when it comes to Georgians and the law.
Georgia’s done great work, said Abrams, but the job isn’t done yet.
“We need to decriminalize being poor in the state of Georgia,” she said. That means things like decriminalizing certain traffic offenses. She also said the state needs to help folks transitioning out of prison who will need access to housing and jobs.
She also spoke well of another thing that Georgia, Atlanta and other jurisdictions are doing: eliminating or stepping back from cash bail requirements.
(The argument is that it’s unfair for poor people to sit in jail as they wait to see a judge, while someone with cash can get out as they wait and continue life.)
Those places, she said, are seeing that people aren’t losing their jobs or being forced out of the economy because of crimes they may or may not have committed.
Kemp also said he supports Deal’s work.
“I think in the future though,” said Kemp, “our next step is to have robust public safety reform, which includes my two plans to stop and dismantle gangs and to go after drug cartels.”
He said that for himself and his wife Marty, the parents of three daughters, there’s no more important issues than to keep families safe.
Though it didn’t come up in the debate, Kemp has previously spoken at greater length about his public safety agenda. At a September press conference, for example, he said about the same thing about Deal’s record and his own plans, as well as painting himself as a law-and-order candidate.
“We need to have a conversation with law enforcement leaders about compensation, retirement, protections and transition; and I will be a governor that will listen,” he said in September.
(Some sheriffs have been asking the state to help them pay deputies more, arguing that poorer rural counties especially can’t compete with what Georgia pays state patrol officers.)
Asked what that would cost, he returned with a rhetorical question about the cost of crime in Georgia and the value of getting criminals off streets.
Metz said Georgia needs to stop arresting people for small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption.
“That would unclog the court system, it would reduce the fear [of] the youth that would cause them to shoot a police officer for fear of being arrested,” he said at the debate.
While some bills have appeared in the Georgia Legislature over the years for decriminalizing marijuana for recreational purposes, none has in recent years had any chance of passage, or even much serious consideration. While a form of liquid medical cannabis is legal to possess in Georgia with a state card, there’s no provision to cultivate cannabis or manufacture or sell that liquid here legally.
Deal himself has several times said that he wants the work of a criminal justice reform council to continue. He’s said he would like it to work on the “heavy lift” of reducing or eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences that he thinks are excessively long. In a speech last month, however, he also linked incarceration to the school system, pointing out that something like half of people entering Georgia prisons don’t have a high school diploma. If the state’s going to do something about that, it needs to look at its education system, Deal said.
Early voting is already underway and Election Day is Nov 6.
Georgia’s prison incarceration rate was below 300 per 100,000 Georgians in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit. The rate rose sharply in the 1990s, it found. According to the latest report from the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, the state prison population peaked in 2012 at 54,895 people; and that prisons would have held as many as 60,000 people today had the laws not changed.
View the entire Tuesday debate on the Atlanta Press Club’s YouTube channel.