By Greg Buestein
Macon – Gov. Nathan Deal ushered into law the next phase of criminal justice changes on Tuesday, signing a trio of bills that promise smaller-scale changes that he said would bring another “meaningful step forward” for the state’s prison system.
With the most sweeping elements of the overhaul in the rear-view mirror, the legislation he signed Tuesday are aimed at more minor revisions he hopes will have a lasting impact on the criminal justice system.
One measure, Senate Bill 174, is designed to shift state probation system resources to focus on offenders most likely to commit crimes again. Another, Senate Bill 176, will require mail notification before a bench warrant is issued for a failure to appear for a non-serious traffic violation.
But Deal cast most of his attention on the third bill in the triumvirate, Senate Bill 175, which creates what he called “new parental accountability” orders to ensure that parents play a role in their children’s juvenile court proceedings – or risk a penalty.
A former part-time juvenile court judge, Deal told a crowd of hundreds at a state summit in Macon focused on rehabilitating released prisoners that a lack of parental involvement was long a “sore spot” for him.
This legislation will impose new requirements on parents of juvenile offenders, and could lead to a contempt of court charge if they refuse to comply.
“For the first time, we have the ability to put some pressure on the parents,” Deal said.
Sweeping changes to the criminal justice system have been Deal’s passion project since his 2010 election.
The overhaul started in Deal’s first term with changes that allowed Georgia to push more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from expensive prison beds and gave judges more discretion to depart from mandatory sentences.
The second part involved similar legislation that’s aimed at keeping young offenders out of juvenile lockups who were convicted of drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses. A third part takes aim at the state’s stubborn recidivism rate – the proportion of inmates convicted again within three years – which hovers around 30 percent.
When he took office, the state’s incarceration rate was the fourth highest in the nation and projections showed the prison population was to grow an additional 8 percent within five years to roughly 60,000 inmates, costing taxpayers an additional $264 million. The recidivism rate — the proportion of inmates convicted again within three years — remained stuck at a stubborn 30 percent.
Deal said Tuesday that the prison population has continued to decline and that the percentage of nonviolent offenders has decreased dramatically from 42 percent when he took office to about 33 percent now. State officials are hopeful that the recidivism rate will also begin to decline as these changes take root.
At the same time, the state’s system of accountability courts – which offer treatment, job training and other initiatives for offenders – has swelled. There are now 139 of those courts in just about every judicial circuit in the state, and the number of new participants entering these programs increased by 147 percent in 2016 alone.
Deal, who often gets teary-eyed talking about his criminal justice initiatives, was overwhelmed with emotion as he talked about the programs at the Macon summit.
“It is the ultimate ideal of redemption,” he told the crowd. “And we all ought to be in the business of redemption.”