Charlie Harper: On Criminal Justice Reform and Legacies

Charlie Harper

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Last week Governor Deal signed his fifth criminal justice bill into law.  The effort continues Georgia’s effort to realign Georgia’s priorities to assign appropriate sentencing based on the severity of crimes that are committed, but to also ensure that once a debt to society is paid the offender is able to return to an income earning, productive Georgia citizen.

This bill specifically strengthens the first offender act by closing criminal records when an offender finishes his or her sentence.  It adds protections to juvenile offenders to keep almost all under the age of 13 out of youth detention facilities as well as have schools retain most disciplinary functions rather than turning disruptive students over to those youth detention facilities. 

One of the headline grabbing components of the bill is a provision that allows those with a felony drug conviction to potentially be eligible for food stamps following the successful completion of their sentence and any required probation.  This brings food step eligibility for felons with drug convictions in line with that of violent offenders.  Previously it was theoretically permissible for a convicted murderer or rapist to collect food stamps, but not someone convicted of selling drugs.   

Having the fifth round of criminal justice reform become law has certainly shaped a large chapter of the legacy of Governor Deal. The complexity of competing interests woven into that last plank also demonstrates that we have an executive branch that is willing to step outside the comfort zone of hot button, red meat politics.  Much of today’s political rhetoric – and virtually all of that in campaigns – is conducted in the exclusive realm of black/white, either/or extremities.  Nuance is not the friend of 30 second sound bites. 

This is a governor who has supported some expansion of the use of cannabidiol oil as a form of medical treatment, but has been increasingly criticized for not allowing the in state cultivation of marijuana for its production.  The Governor has been reluctant to place members of his law enforcement and agriculture inspection community to have to decide if they will obey state laws or federal laws, preferring to avoid this conflict. 

His efforts in criminal justice reform, however, demonstrate he is well aware of the long term costs of the criminalization of the marijuana trade.  As was stated during last week’s bill signing ceremony, prisons are designed to handle violent criminals, and the expense in running them should be reserved for those.  Those who have run afoul of the law in non-violent ways will not escape punishment, but also need to be able to return to employment and normal life as soon as possible so that they will be much less likely to return to the criminal justice system – and again become an expense to Georgia’s taxpayers.

This provision also helps diffuse some criticism of the pilot program Georgia is conducting in Cobb, Gwinnett, and Hall counties that requires single, able bodied adults with no dependents to find a job or enter job training if they are to receive food stamp benefits.  Some on the left have found this overly harsh, despite the fact that Georgia has multiple programs that pay for job training for high demand career skills.

I had the opportunity to ask the Governor about the contrast, where Georgia is limiting food stamp benefits to some based on ability to work, but potentially opening the door to others previously barred due to their criminal record.

He noted that a work requirement was one of the original requirements of welfare reform that was passed when he was in Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.  “The whole idea was that if you're going to be on our welfare system…that you should be trying to better yourself to get yourself off of the program. And one of those was including work requirements. I think it's altogether appropriate. We're trying it in a pilot setting, and I hope the results are going to prove to be productive.”

The result is that we have a Governor who understands that if you’re able you should work to eat rather than having others work to pay taxes so that you can, but also believes that if you once make a major mistake and haven’t yet been able to return to full productivity it’s better for the state to allow some benefits rather than crime and a likely return to the high taxpayer cost of prison to be the best option.  

That’s nuance.  It’s also governing by seeing the big picture over the small soundbite. And that is the kind of thing that legacies should be made of.

Charlie Harper is the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank focused on issues of Business & Economic Development, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He’s also the publisher of, a website dedicated to State & Local politics of Georgia.