Tonight, at the Georgia Pacific Auditorium in Atlanta, a group of panelists will meet to discuss one area of American policy where smart thinking and bipartisanship are actually making things better. The topic is criminal justice reform. A lot is going right in the state of Georgia, and the panelists will explain why we should do more of it.
Assembled by the Charles Koch Institute, they come from across the political spectrum, with serious policy thinkers from both right and left-leaning nonprofit groups. Despite that, that the tone will likely be genial. Although their priorities and connections are very different, all of these panelists appreciate how much Americans have to gain by reforming a corrections system that is bloated, inefficient, and often needlessly destructive to American families and communities.
Georgia has distinguished itself as a front-runner on this issue. Although the overhaul of its justice system is far from complete, the Peach State has joined its Lone Star cousin as a success story that’s raising eyebrows across the nation. There’s something here for everybody to like. By reforming its corrections system, Georgia has already saved more than $20 million, with much bigger savings likely on the horizon. Its general inmate population is down, and juvenile detention rates have fallen even more. Through it all, crime rates have remained low.
Conservatives have long been leading the charge in justice reform, especially in southern states like Georgia and Texas. The time is now ripe for Republicans nationwide to embrace this issue. Both fiscally and socially, there’s much to be gained, but we should also see this as a valuable political opportunity. Justice reform opens the door to some smart policy changes that almost nobody seems to hate. It demonstrates that conservatives can to be both smart and proactive about policy reform. Best of all, it shows how fiscally sound policies can also be compassionate and humane.
How Georgia Learned That Tough Isn’t Enough
In the not-distant past, Georgia claimed the dubious distinction of being the number-one “toughest” state in the nation when it came to crime. The state was fully on board with the reforms of the 1990s, which attacked crime aggressively with mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws. Georgia even took this a step further, with Democratic Gov. Zell Miller’s two-strike law, under which thousands of Georgians were sentenced to life terms.
Crime dropped. But by 2010, this regime had taken a serious toll on the state. One in 13 Georgian adults was under correctional control of some sort, and the state’s inmate population had more than doubled since 1990. State spending was increasing by over $500 million annually. Corrections were the state’s second-highest state expenditure, after the Department of Education.
The budget considerations alone were daunting. But the human cost was also significant, says Jay Neal, executive director of Georgia’s Office of Transition, Support, and Re-entry. More and more Georgians started noticing as the overaggressive system upended the lives of people they people they knew.
“When I first started doing this job,” says Neal, “people kept coming to me and saying (of a friend or relative), ‘He’s a good boy. He’s not like that other crowd,’ or ‘She’s a good girl. She’s not like those others.’”
Everyone cares about public safety. But it was becoming clear to people that incarceration was being used as a one-size-fits-all punishment for people who were not dangerous. This carried a real cost both for them and for their communities, especially because inmates emerging from prison face serious obstacles in their efforts to go straight. Few have marketable skills, and they also must contend with the stigma of a criminal record.
Finding the Sweet Spot Where Policy Meets Politics
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal agreed there should be a better way. He opened the issue in January of 2011, in his very first speech before the state legislature. At the same time, conservative nonprofits stepped in to offer support, both in crafting workable policy and in educating the public.
“I have to credit the Texas Public Policy Foundation with this, because they approached us,” said Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. With the help of TPPF, his foundation staged a panel to present the issue, featuring TPPF’s Marc Levin and Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden. “Looking back on that,” says McCutchen, “I think this whole issue is fascinating as an incredibly successful effort by nonprofits to impact policy. You had the perfect combination of politics and policy.”
In politics, this might be as close as you can come to a “Cinderella story.” As all policy-makers know, it can be hard to “market” good policy because the measures that make the most sense often aren’t the ones that energize voters. “Policy can be a little boring,” admits McCutchen, “and politicians get nervous because sometimes good policy is controversial.”
In this case, the Texans and Georgians came together to find some harmony. “Marc [Levin] can answer any question; he can give you the facts and figures on why this makes sense and how much savings they had. But Jerry [Madden] put it in very simple terms that people can understand. He said, ‘You know, what we’re doing is turning tax burdens into taxpayers.’”
This advocacy started to get traction. Georgia began looking at sentencing reform and other initiatives to rehabilitate inmates and keep non-violent offenders out of prison. An expanded use of “accountability courts” enabled many drug users to avoid prison if they got serious about treating their addiction through community-supervised programs. These programs cost dramatically less than incarceration ($13 per day per person, as compared to about $50 per day for state prisoners) but have proven significantly more effective at converting addicts into law-abiding citizens.
Legislatively, it really was a tour de force of sensible bipartisanship. “We continued to broaden the coalition,” said McCutchen, “by bringing on the ACLU and others that normally don’t agree with us on a lot of things, and we created this great coalition, which was really amazing, and fun to do. And that’s why the thing passed unanimously. And nothing passes unanimously in Georgia. I could have a resolution honoring Miss Georgia and it wouldn’t pass unanimously.”
All Aboard the Justice Reform Train
Among conservatives, the initial transition from “tough” to “smart” was tricky. Many conservative politicians were understandably nervous about justice reform. Could they transition from “tough” to “smart” without alienating voters? Would Democrats skewer them with “hug a thug” caricatures and whip the voters into a panic?
It didn’t happen like that. Initially, nonprofit groups helped bolster their case through the sanction of big-name conservative supporters. “Our fellow conservatives were worried,” McCutchen relates, “about the risk of being soft on crime. So we decided what we could do best was to focus on recruiting some well-respected conservative leaders here in Georgia to sign onto the principles of Right on Crime. That gave our elected officials cover.”
Texas’ Right on Crime initiative continues to make progress there, most recently claiming Gov. Rick Perry as a new signatory, adding to an already impressive list of conservatives that includes Jeb Bush, William Bennett, Asa Hutchinson, and Newt Gingrich.
Much of the project’s success has hinged on the leadership of Deal, whose sustained commitment to the project has by all accounts been critical to its success. Deal was also one of the first to incorporate his position on justice reform into his successful 2014 re-election campaign.
“It helps a lot when you have a governor on your side,” said McCutchen, “and Governor Deal had a unique background because he was an attorney, he understood the issue, and he had a son who headed up an accountability court. So he had seen firsthand how you could have alternatives for non-violent offenders that were more effective than prison, and it really was changing people’s lives.”
Neal agrees that the governor’s support has been essential. Justice reform, he says, is “a daunting project, just given the magnitude of what needs to be done. And you need a lot of coordination all across the state, so without strong leadership it’s almost impossible to make it happen. We’ve been blessed with that strong leadership from the governor’s office.”
Policy-Makers, Politicians, and the Public
It’s hard enough to get policy-makers and politicians on the same page. In the longer run, the public will have the final say. In the case of justice reform, voters seem enthusiastic and anxious for more.
“We’ve had almost no pushback from people who don’t think we should be doing what we’re doing,” says Neal, whose office is in the middle of an aggressive new prisoner re-entry initiative. Instead of fielding criticism from skeptics, Neal says his office gets regular complaints from people who want to see them work faster, and implement their project in more regions.
In Texas, where conservative justice reform first began, the voters have clearly spoken. A recent poll released by the Right on Crime unit shows strong support for sentencing reform, drug treatment programs, and the increased use of community supervision as an alternative for non-violent offenders.
Ironically, this may be one rare issue in which the lack of controversy is the biggest obstacle to getting political traction. The talking heads and rabble-rousers have trouble making hay from an issue where so many interests seem to align. Cooler heads should notice, however, that criminal justice reform is one area of policy in which conservatives can claim some clear, feel-good wins. And these are exactly the sorts of wins that Republicans currently need.
While Congress bickers and stalls, conservatives in multiple states have been engaged in the honest, old-fashioned work of crafting good policy, educating the public, and implementing prudent reforms. Budgets are balanced, lives are transformed, and struggling communities find more grounds for hope. This is the picture of conservatism we should want Americans to see.