Georgia Governor Makes Emotional Case for Justice Reform at RNC Winter Meeting

This op-ed was originally published at Medium on January 14, 2016.

Criminal justice reform was on the menu at a luncheon Thursday during the Republican National Committee winter meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal served up an emotional talk about his efforts to reform the Peach State’s approach to corrections.

In January 2011, Deal delivered his first State of the State address to the Georgia General Assembly. The new governor surprised Republican lawmakers when he asked for the creation of a commission to review Georgia’s criminal justice system and offer recommendations for reform.

At the time, Georgia’s prison system was experiencing a crisis. The prison population had doubled over the course of two decades, budget allocations for corrections eclipsed $1 billion, and three in ten offenders were rearrested after their release from prison. The Georgia General Assembly created the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform at Deal’s request during the 2011 session.

The council’s first report, released in November 2011, was an eye-opener for state lawmakers. “If current policies remain in place,” the council explained, “analysis indicates that Georgia’s prison population will rise by another 8 percent to reach nearly 60,000 inmates by 2016, presenting the state with the need to spend an additional $264 million to expand capacity.”

Texas had already provided a blueprint for Georgia. Facing more than $2 billion in immediate and long-term prison construction costs, the Lone Star State, in 2007, began implementing reforms that focused on drug treatment and rehabilitation as alternatives to incarceration. As a result, Texas has saved $3 billion and closed three prisons.

Though cost savings are important, another measure of success is public safety. Even as the incarceration rate dropped in Texas, crime rates fell to their lowest point since 1968 and recidivism rates noticeably declined.

In a time where Peach State lawmakers were faced with tough budgetary choices, they accepted the recommendations — which included accountability courts, expansion of treatment and rehabilitative programs, and time credits for prisoners who demonstrated a low risk of recidivism — in the 2012 session.

These reforms were only the beginning. Georgia has taken other steps to reduce the strain on its prison system. State lawmakers adopted a “safety valve” exception to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders and expanded community supervision.

Much like Texas, Georgia has seen crime rates fall, recidivism decline, and cost savings increase since working on the issue. The successes of these two states’ criminal justice reform efforts were highlighted in a FreedomWorks’ report, Federalism in Action: How Conservative States Got Smart on Crime.

Needless to say, Deal has become a strong, perhaps unlikely, Republican figurehead for the criminal justice reform movement. His efforts even earned recognition from The New Republic, which isn’t the type of outlet that would ordinarily praise a Republican politician from the Deep South.

Speaking at the luncheon at the Republican National Committee winter meeting, Deal offered a passionate speech on how Georgia reformed its criminal justice system and, perhaps, opened some eyes about the merits of the movement to those who may be skeptical.

“Governor Deal spoke at great length about the success Georgia has had implementing several criminal justice measures. He said there are two kinds of criminals: ones who are actually dangerous and ones we just don’t like. Ones we don’t like tend to be non-violent offenders and that we must admit that to embrace criminal justice reform,” said Matthew Hurtt, a millennial-aged conservative activist who attended the luncheon. “He also talked about providing those who are incarcerated with a high school education or with vocational skills, so when they are released, they can find work.”

Deal’s talk didn’t only focus on front-end sentencing reforms; he also touched on prisoner re-entry policies like “ban the box.” The Georgia governor, in February 2015, issued an executive order to all state agencies to remove the criminal history box from all employment applications.

“He was moved to tears on at least one occasion while discussing these issues,” said Hurtt. “Based solely on his presentation, I am encouraged that courageous Republicans can adopt many of these changes in other states.”

The policies advanced in red states like Georgia and Texas are grounded in conservative principles. With the criminal justice reform growing in popularity, Republicans should embrace the movement by adopting it into the party platform.