By Liz Fabian
Gov. Nathan Deal’s voice cracked and tears welled in his eyes Tuesday morning while sharing success stories from Georgia’s Drug Court.
“If you ever attend one of their graduations, you’ll understand why,” Deal said of his welling emotions. “These are people who have lost everything. They have hit the bottom. … But, for those who will take advantage of it, when they’re given an opportunity to change their life, they can do it.”
Deal, who has made criminal justice reform a priority of his administration, addressed the inaugural Reentry Summit in Macon.
“It is the ultimate story of redemption and we all should be in the business of redemption,” Deal told those gathered at the Anderson Conference Center.
As Georgia strives to keep offenders from returning to prison, the Department of Community Supervision hosted the gathering of workers from all over the state.
Former NFL head coach Joe Gibbs was scheduled to close the session Tuesday afternoon, while former Major League Baseball player Darryl Strawberry headlined the morning.
Strawberry pulled out his Bible when telling the audience that incarcerated people need a transformation.
“I was a heathen. I was a womanizer. I was a drug addict. I was an alcoholic. I was a sinner. I was rich. I was famous, lived behind the community gates, but saved by grace,” Strawberry said.
At age 13, Strawberry’s alcoholic father pulled a shotgun and threatened to kill the family.
“See, most people just saw me put on the uniform and didn’t realize I was already wounded, I was already scarred,” he said. “My pain led me to my greatness and my greatness led me to my destructive behavior.”
Even if an inmate is reformed in prison, Deal said there are two main struggles when they are released — finding a place to live and securing a job.
As the governor encouraged those in attendance to ask the federal government for help with housing, he also lauded the Blue Bird Corp. in Fort Valley for continually hiring trained welders released from the prison system.
When beginning his first term, Deal said he was told Georgia would need two new prisons to meet the rising inmate population. Instead, reforms have led to a reduction of 15.4 percent in prison commitments, or nearly 8,000 inmates, by the end of 2016.
“We’re saving our prison beds for those who need to be locked in prison and we’re giving alternatives to those who do not necessarily need to be locked up there,” Deal said.
While in Macon, Deal signed into law three more criminal justice reforms.
Senate Bill 176 aims to reduce the number of habitual traffic violators serving time by requiring they be notified by mail before bench warrants are issued for their arrests for failure to appear.
Senate Bill 174 bolsters Georgia’s accountability courts and focuses resources where they can do the most good on the front-end of the state’s probation system when chances are higher that people will continue the behaviors that landed them in prison.
In the Juvenile Justice System, Senate Bill 175 creates new parental accountability orders that can reduce delinquent conduct, and works to accommodate alleged juvenile offenders who are found incompetent to go through the traditional judicial process.
Avery Niles, commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice, said parents are key to rehabilitating children.
“When you look at sports, when the kids do good, parents always want to be involved,” Niles said. “But what about when this time gets hard on a child? Why is it that a parent is distanced? And that’s when a parent should be held accountable for the child’s actions.”
Tuesday’s seminar focused on honing reentry programs to make sure people have the skills, jobs and housing they need to make a fresh starts on the outside.
“If we don’t do these reentry programs well, then our recidivism rate will not drop as we want it to do,” Deal said. “We’re seeing apparently some significant drop in our recidivism rates, but we want to continue to press on that.”