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Maggie Lee Columns

Questions linger over which way Georgia’s criminal justice system will trend

Maggie Lee
The doors of Georgia's old judiciary building depict blindfolded justice
The doors of Georgia’s old judiciary building. Credit: Kelly Jordan

 

By Maggie Lee

When Fulton’s group of state lawmakers called a meeting with county leaders and Atlanta-based activists, worries came out about Georgia’s criminal justice system.

Or the “criminal legal system,” as folks from The Southern Center for Human Rights call it.

“We find there are too many injustices to call it a justice system,” said SCHR Public Policy Director Marissa Dodson.

She came to the Friday meeting with recommendations for folks under the Gold Dome.

There shouldn’t be cash bail, she said, because charging money to get out of prison amounts to a two-tier system.

“Whenever it’s a dollar amount that someone has to pay, then you are essentially saying that you can get out if you can pay and you can’t get out if you can’t,” Dodson said. “That’s not about public safety.”

She said there’s an opportunity to resolve the way the system treats people who are incompetent to stand trial, besides keeping them in jail. And she endorsed capping probation at about two years.

The sheriff brought advice on gangs.

If kids fall behind in school, if they have no education, no skills and no choices, they’ll get involved with crime, Ted Jackson said.

“So when you look at gang activity, you got to look at society itself, education is critical, parenting is critical and environments,” Jackson said. “You can do all the gang cases you want, and all you’re going to do is fill the jails up.”

Fulton’s Deputy COO for Public Safety, Alton Adams, had plenty of places where money might be spent to end the cycle of mental illness and poverty driving people into his jails.

Probation is underfunded, he said, and besides that, Fulton’s jail isn’t the best place to send people who beset by mental illness.

“We need 1,000 more [psychiatric] beds, to get very specific, as soon as you can get them,” Adams told Fulton lawmakers.

And money for transitional housing and job training for folks who are getting out of prison would help too. Too many people are stepping out of prison, onto a Greyhound bus and into Downtown Atlanta with no job and no place to lay their heads.

But this year’s legislative session doesn’t promise anything transformative in those areas. Not transformative in the direction they mean, that is.

Funding in most state departments is going down or staying steady. That’s part due to a state income tax cut and possibly also to the economic damage done in southwest Georgia due to Hurricane Michael.

Indeed, so far, House lawmakers have scrapped hard over budget lines of just six or seven figures for mental heath and courts and public defenders that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp proposed cutting in the fiscal year now underway.

But in the scheme of a $27.4 billion budget for fiscal year 2020, a few million dollars isn’t going to bend the system in any way.

During his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Kemp promised a crackdown on gangs.

Part of that came this month in Senate Bill 393, which would give the governor power to name prosecutors anywhere in the state, or send them at the request of local prosecutors.

“Because to solve the gang crisis, we do need reforms to our laws and tougher penalties for those who terrorize our towns, cities and counties,” Kemp said at a press conference last month announcing the legislation.

But state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Smyrna Democrat who also represents part of Fulton, said it’s troubling that the governor would have a “special legal force” that could go to places that already have elected their own prosecutor.

“It’s huge overreach,” she said.

At a Monday afternoon committee hearing, state Rep. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, who’s carrying the bill for Kemp, said it is not the governor’s intention to send prosecutors without a request from the local prosecutor. The bill was amended to clarify that, but the committee nonetheless rejected the bill after discussing other aspects of it.

David Dreyer, an Atlanta Democratic state representative, said that for several reasons, he feels like key criminal justice reforms of the 2010s are rolling back.

Per GBI statistics, Georgia’s crime rate dropped by about 40 percent between 1980 and 2016.

“All of a sudden we’re rolling out a bunch of new tough-on-crime initiatives?” Dreyer said. “We found that they’re expensive, and they don’t work.”

Those “key criminal justice reforms” were spearheaded by somebody who officially lived in Atlanta — Nathan Deal, the Republican inhabitant of the West Paces Ferry governor’s mansion for eight years in the 2010s.

Deal long said he meant to reserve Georgia’s expensive jail cells for dangerous people. Others would get steered toward drug treatment, job training or other nudges onto the straight-and-narrow. His words were backed up by budgets and policies.

Kemp himself is no critic of Deal. Kemp regularly says he aims to build on his predecessor’s criminal justice reforms.

Kemp’s legislative and budget initiatives ave focused on the crime-fighting side, like a new GBI anti-gang taskforce and a bill that rewrites the definition of criminal gang activity.

Not everyone agreed with Deal, but he did win over many with his idea of redemption — or of saving money on prisons, or of getting Georgia off the top of state incarceration rankings.

Deal’s legislation generally had angles to for people all over the political spectrum to like.

Not all the new governor’s criminal justice initiatives are going to enjoy the same level of support.

This story has been updated to reflect Monday afternoon Senate committee discussions.

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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1 Comment

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    Natallie February 26, 2020 8:21 pm

    Thank you for this article. I think HB 994 is the wrong direction if we really want to be effective at addressing gang activity. Sheriff Jackson’s comments above make a lot of sense. It is more complicated to focus on prevention services – labeling, criminalizing, enforcing and incarcerating is the more straight forward route. But we have seen that jails and prisons just serve as training grounds for increased criminal activity. We have to focus more resources on prevention and diversion and rehabilitation and reserve imprisonment for people who are truly dangerous (while also giving them an opportunity in prison for a positive path out).

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