It seems like most 2016 presidential candidates are talking about criminal justice reform but have little to show for it. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican who is not running for the White House, can talk about five years of accomplishments. On Monday, he got several rounds of applause at the National Forum on Criminal Justice in his home base of Atlanta by telling how he had tackled prison overpopulation, a juvenile justice overhaul, and now inmate re-entry into society. When Deal took office in 2011, his state had the 10th highest population in the U.S. and the fourth highest prison population. Instead of building two costly new prisons, he got state legislators to approve alternatives to incarceration. The result has been a reduction of about 3,000 inmates and no new prison-building.
Deal credited several reforms, including expanded use of specialty courts to deal with drug cases, veterans, and suspects with mental health problems. He won approval for programs to divert juvenile suspects from prison to treatment and rehabilitation. Now he is focusing on helping educate those behind bars, including the recruitment of charter high schools offering prisoners courses leading to diplomas. More than two-thirds of state prisoners are high-school dropouts. Next year, Deal will turn his attention to winning approval of a state constitutional amendment that would allow state officials to intervene in failing school districts, which he says would help break the cycle of dropouts going to prison. Deal says his predecessors believed the easiest solution to crime was to send most offenders to prison, even if they emerged to commit new crimes. “I don’t think responsible leaders can take that attitude,” he said.