Georgia’s criminal justice system, which saw significant reform in the last decade, will see more regressive changes under Gov. Brian Kemp’s leadership.
Kemp outlined part of his crime agenda during his State of the State address in mid-January. Since then, Georgia lawmakers have pursued new policies on crime and punishment that are uncontroversial, like tougher penalties for human traffickers and more privacy for their victims.
But other changes that have already received support from state legislators, including budget cuts to accountability courts and the public defender program, deviate from reforms that serve the interests of Georgians.
The impending overhaul of parts of the state’s criminal justice program comes on the heels of an eight-year reform effort led by former Gov. Nathan Deal, Kemp’s predecessor, that has perhaps become the crowning achievement and legacy of his governorship. Deal reduced numerous non-violent crimes from felony to misdemeanor status, eased penalties for many drug offenders in the state and expanded accountability courts, which help offenders avoid jail if they meet treatment and work requirements.
Kemp, according to his press secretary on Twitter, sought to expand funding for accountability courts but was rebuked by state lawmakers. Whether or not this is true, these courts will see significant cuts as a result of Georgia’s budget for the year, part of the demand that state agencies decrease their budgets by 4 percent and 6 percent over the next two years.
Added to the hit taken by the accountability courts, $3.5 million in cuts to Georgia’s public defender system will devastate poor defendants and have the potential to grow a incarcerated population that Deal helped reduce. Specifically, Georgia saw a historic drop in its African American incarcerated population during the Deal era, an important victory that could be undone when Georgia’s accountability courts and public defenders lose millions in funding.
The debates under the Gold Dome don’t capture the urgency of criminal justice reform in the state. Georgia has quietly accrued the highest rate of correctional control, which includes individuals incarcerated, on parole or on probation, nationwide. People in state prisons account for about 54,000 of the roughly 90,000 to 100,000 people in jail or prison in Georgia. More than 400,000 Georgians are on probation (including more than 200,000 on felony probation) — the most of any U.S. state, and 100,000 more than second-place California. Even with the reforms implemented under Deal, Georgia is far from fixing its broken criminal justice system.
Kemp’s plans to fight human trafficking and gangs hint at a decidedly aggressive approach to crime this year. Atlanta is the largest sex trafficking hub in the country, and much of Georgia law enforcement pointed to gang-related crime as its biggest concern. But stricter sentences for offenders and less money for rehabilitation programs will not save young people from falling victim to or becoming complicit in these criminal enterprises. Kemp’s promise to fund a mental health counselor for Georgia public high schools is a start, but the Georgians most vulnerable to trafficking and gangs — adolescents and teenagers — need more support if Kemp hopes to solve these crises soon.
It’s unfortunate for the governor that state lawmakers rejected his planned additions to accountability courts, as it reflects poorly on both him and his party. Deal made clear that criminal justice reform could and should be an issue taken up by conservatives. Kemp needs to reinforce that commitment and continue to help Georgians in need, party politics aside.
As it is, the United States’ racially-biased, overcrowded and heavy-handed criminal justice system is a humanitarian crisis, and Georgia embodies the country’s broken way of justice. We must treat and address it as such with comprehensive policy solutions, just as Deal did in the 2010s. But instead, Kemp and lawmakers supporting these budget cuts are bound to become the pallbearers of the state’s criminal justice reform rather than its newest champions. In doing so, they are betraying Deal, his legacy and the citizens they were elected to serve.
Jake Busch (22C) is from Brookhaven, Ga.