For decades, conservatives have talked about being “tough on crime.” On its face, this makes sense. An orderly and peaceful society requires strong law enforcement.
But what conservatives and liberals alike have found in recent years is that some of our laws just don’t make sense, particularly in the war on drugs.
Some of the most conservative state lawmakers are now looking at how to make offender’s reentry into society easier, considering rehabilitative approaches to non-violent drug crimes rather than incarceration, and contemplating reducing overburdensome state-level mandatory minimum sentencing.
Georgia, where both the legislature and governorship are controlled by Republicans, is one of several conservative states now leading the way on these types of reforms.
As the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Bill Rankin reported last month, “At a recent meeting of (Governor Nathan) Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform, co-chair Thomas Worthy noted Georgia’s prison population has been steadily declining over the past three years. And the percentage of violent offenders held in custody is rising.” Worthy added, “We are not claiming premature success or victory, but the trends are going in the right direction. That’s what we need to see moving forward.”
How did Georgia achieve this reduction? It started with reforms implemented five years ago. In early 2012, a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform was convened to address Georgia’s spiraling prison population and to consider emulating reforms other southern states with historically “tough on crime” laws, like Texas and South Carolina.
As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported at the time, this council explained that, “Georgia’s prison population will increase by 8 percent to almost 60,000 inmates by 2016 if current policies remain in place. That jump will require taxpayers to spend an additional $264 million for more prison beds over the next five years.”
At the time, Georgia had the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation, spending $1 billion per year to achieve it.
This realization, coupled with the fact that incarceration hasn’t reduced drug use, sparked a confluence between fiscal conservatism and realist thinking that has led to major changes in Georgia and other similarly heeled conservative states. As Georgia’s Chief Justice Carol Hunstein said in January of 2012 as she implored lawmakers to support the criminal justice reforms before them, “We now know that being tough on crime is not enough.”
This has led to reform-minded “smart on crime” thinking that is turning Georgia around and readying it, along with many other southern states, for a 21st century approach to criminal justice. The biggest changes for the state have resulted from its focus on addressing the underlying causes of non-violent offenses rather than sending non-violent drug users to prison and in turn, bringing them back into society as hardened criminals likely to offend again.
Gov. Nathan Deal, a former prosecutor, is optimistic but says there’s much more to be done. Discussing impending reforms that will make it easier for offenders to reenter society as productive members, Deal said, “If you pay your dues to society, if you take advantage of the opportunities to better yourself, if you discipline yourself so that you can regain your freedom and live by the rules of society, you will be given the chance to reclaim your life.”
Deal’s statement is common sense that unfortunately has taken many politicians too long to embrace. The good news is that there appears to be a growing bipartisan consensus that we simply cannot afford the behemoth criminal justice system that rose in the late 20th century, on either a financial or moral level.