In a memorable scene from the comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” a government official meanders through a plague-infested village screaming, “Bring out your dead!” — presumably for burial. This somber scene is interrupted when a villager tries to deliver a man for inhumation despite him being alive and constantly uttering, “I’m not dead yet!”
This is regrettably how many activists view the state of criminal justice reform in Georgia. As the clock on Governor Nathan Deal’s tenure expired last year, many privately bemoaned that Georgia’s criminal justice reform era was over. Indeed, by helping shepherd numerous pieces of significant legislation through the Georgia General Assembly, Deal became one of the nation’s most successful reformers in the criminal justice arena. Without his leadership, some felt that additional reform proposals would be dead on arrival.
Yet despite Deal’s absence, justice reform is not dead, and activists shouldn’t act like it is. Legislators have introduced several reform measures since his retirement — some of which have already made it to Governor Brian Kemp’s desk. While this legislation hasn’t yet grabbed the headlines like Deal’s landmark proposals did, they are meaningful nonetheless, and the Legislature appears to be ramping up efforts for more major reforms in 2020.
Earlier this year, for instance, state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, introduced legislation to prohibit the unnecessary shackling of pregnant prisoners during labor and childbirth, and for good reason. The use of such restraints increases a woman’s likelihood of tripping and falling, which too often leads to miscarriages. The shackles can also impede medical workers’ ability to provide critical care during childbirth. This risks the health of both the mother and the child.
Meanwhile, state Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, sponsored a bill related to professional licensing. While it touches on many issues, one section in particular targets licensing boards’ power to reject applications based on vague guidelines. Under these policies, if board members determine that applicants aren’t people “of good moral character,” then they can deny their application. Such provisions are often viewed as an unofficial means of rejecting applicants with criminal records, which keeps the formerly incarcerated out of work and encourages them to return to crime.
State Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, has also filed a proposal that would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 years old. Georgia is one of only four states that automatically treats certain minors as adults in the justice system, and the results have been devastating. Placing youths in the adult system ensures that they will be saddled with adult criminal records for the rest of their lives. Moreover, these young people cannot be housed in juvenile facilities. Rather, they are sent to adult prisons, where they are on the receiving end of an inordinate amount of sexual violence. Beyond this, youths rarely receive the care that they need in adult facilities because the programs in these prisons are not geared toward children. All of this may account for the higher recidivism rates of youths who are placed in adult prisons as opposed to juvenile facilities.
Finally, state Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, recently dropped a bill in the hopper to repeal Georgia’s death penalty. He cites the risk of executing an innocent person, the program’s high costs, and the fact that no credible evidence exists demonstrating that the death penalty serves as a general deterrent to murder. For these reasons, he believes Georgia is better off without capital punishment.
Despite criminal justice reform supposedly being dead, Cooper’s and Martin’s bills sailed through both chambers with minimal opposition and now await Kemp’s signature. Ballinger’s and Harrell’s proposals survive into the 2020 session, and their chances of success may ultimately surprise people. Some heavy-hitters support Ballinger’s bill, and not a single person testified in opposition to it in a preliminary hearing, which bodes well for the measure. Harrell’s legislation enjoys bipartisan support, and he is one of the most effective bill sponsors in the House. All of this is proof that the General Assembly’s hunger for justice reform has not yet been sated and more reforms may be on the way.
While it is impossible to predict the aforementioned bills’ outcomes, one thing is certain: The desire for criminal justice reform didn’t dissipate when Nathan Deal eased into retirement. Rather, Georgia is still championing innovative solutions and commonsense legislation, and we should expect to see more proposals in the coming year. Like the poor chap from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” additional criminal justice reforms are not dead — far from it, in fact.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a longtime Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.