On Monday, The Crime Report, in partnership with The Pantagraph, described the criminal justice reforms that have resulted in major reductions in prison populations in Illinois. We are pleased to publish an excerpt from a book looking at similar efforts in Georgia and elsewhere. The book, “Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration,” will be published in March by The New Press. Its authors are Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, a New York-based think tank that works to improve the performance of state courts and criminal justice agencies; and Julian Adler, the center’s director of research-practice strategies. The excerpt has been condensed for space.
When Republican Gov. Nathan Deal took office in January 2011, Georgia’s prison population was still growing; the corrections budget had already reached $1 billion per year. “I was told that as Governor, I should be prepared to build two new adult prisons because our prison population would grow by another 5,000 during my first term,” recalls Deal, a former prosecutor.
Georgia is not alone in its efforts to analyze the future trajectory of its criminal justice system. In recent years, dozens of states have sought to simultaneously reduce correctional spending and improve public safety. Much of this work has been driven by something known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The idea behind justice reinvestment is simple: to encourage administrative and legislative changes at the state level that will result in significant cost savings in terms of reduced spending on corrections. These savings can then be “reinvested” in community-based rehabilitative programs.
The idea behind justice reinvestment might be straightforward, but the implementation is not. It involves all three branches of government agreeing to work together. It requires intensive data analysis. And it demands a commitment to bipartisan political consensus. To help states interested in embarking down this path, nonprofit groups, including the Council of State Governments and the Pew Charitable Trusts, provide research support and strategic advice, much of it underwritten by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Tackling Drug Crime First
“The fact that we were ultimately able to [institute change] in Georgia, a state that has legislative and executive branches run by Republicans, makes for a pretty interesting conversation about the soundness of smart-on- crime policy reform initiatives,” notes Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael P. Boggs. In 2012, Boggs was appointed by Gov. Deal to serve as co-chair of the Criminal Justice Reform Council, a group charged with finding problems to solve within the criminal justice system that might yield to bipartisan consensus. The first problem the council chose to tackle was drug crime.
Justice Boggs had witnessed the potential of alternatives to incarceration firsthand, having once presided over a felony-level drug court in Georgia. Even those without a personal connection were won over when they reviewed the research literature, which credited adult drug courts with appreciable reductions in both recidivism and drug use. Several studies documented even larger effects for higher risk individuals and users of more serious drugs (for example, heroin and cocaine).
The Criminal Justice Reform Council recommended expanded funding for drug courts and other specialized “accountability courts” in Georgia. “We’ve not only expanded the number of accountability courts but we’ve enlarged the scope,” explains Boggs. “We are now increasing the number of veterans’ courts, family dependency courts, DUI courts, mental health courts, and of course adult felony drug courts.” Georgia’s accountability courts now have the capacity to serve upwards of 3,500 participants each year…
The decision to start with drug crimes in Georgia was strategic. “By focusing on this segment of our prison population first, we proved that there was a better way,” explains Governor Deal. He adds that the success of this initial reform effort paved the way for a more expansive and ambitious approach to rethinking incarceration in Georgia … Deal says, “That allowed us to move into some of the more difficult areas of criminal justice reform: community-based diversion programs for juveniles; reforms within our prison system which focused on increasing educational and technical skills of inmates.”
All of these moves were accomplished with bipartisan support. According to Zoë Towns, formerly a staff member with the Pew Charitable Trusts, the ultimate impact was dramatic: “In a state like Georgia, the governor put the brakes on forty years of very fast, very steep growth in the prison population.” The numbers suggest that Georgia has indeed succeeded in bending the curve, significantly altering the projected growth in the state prison population. As we write this, Georgia’s prison system has about 8,000 fewer inmates than was projected for 2017. And the number of African Americans committed to Georgia prisons had dropped to roughly 10,000 from more than 13,000 in 2009.
That said, the number of Georgians behind bars is essentially the same today as it was in 2009. Years of effort and energy by really smart and committed people have altered Georgia’s trajectory, but they have not dramatically reduced the number of people behind bars.
Change ‘Won’t Happen Overnight’
So what are we to take away from the Georgia experience? The most important lesson is that reducing incarceration in the United States is not going to happen overnight. Reformers in Georgia have devoted an enormous amount of time, money, and political capital to the cause of reform. They have found that the criminal justice system changes course slowly, if it changes course at all …
Seizing the current window of opportunity means more than just identifying the right policy goals or providing money to scale up model programs. We need to be thoughtful about the details of implementation, and give practitioners the tools and training they need to do things differently. We need to actively engage frontline justice professionals in the reform process to ensure that they will take ownership of new ideas rather than working behind the scenes to subvert them …
And we must also have the patience and resolve to pursue the goals of reform not just for an election cycle or two, but over the course of a decade or more. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions here. But there is a lot of room for improvement.
Greg Berman is director of the Center for Court Innovation, a New York-based think tank that works to improve the performance of state courts and criminal justice agencies. Julian Adler is the center’s director of research-practice strategies. The authors welcome readers’ comments.
Copyright © 2018 by Greg Berman and Julian Adler. This excerpt originally appeared in Start Here: A Roadmap to Reducing Mass Incarceration by Greg Berman and Julian Adler, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.