New Deal on Prison Reform

I’ve said some pretty negative things about former U.S. Rep, and now Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal over the years, calling him a party-switching hack and opportunist, a culture-war extremist, a peddler of dumb economic development “ideas,” and a pol with a sketchy ethics record. But if criminal justice reform crusaders like the ACLU’s Alison Holcomb and Dream Corps’ Jessica Jackson are very impressed with Deal’s record on criminal justice reform, than I should be, too. TNR’s Naomi Shavin has the story of Deal’s unlikely leadership on this issue. After citing some of the statistics (a small drop in the prison population complemented by a more significant reduction in the number of people in county jails awaiting a prison cell), Shavin reported a highly symbolic event:

[W]ith all of this quantifiable progress in Georgia, it’s no wonder that the day before we spoke, Deal gave the keynote lunch speech at the summit on criminal justice reform co-hosted last Thursday by figures from across the partisan spectrum: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; political consultant Donna Brazile; Rebuild the Dream founder Van Jones, a former Obama environmental adviser; and Pat Nolan, the director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform. Deal spoke between David Simon, creator of the classic HBO series “The Wire,” and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison—and somehow managed to deliver remarks that stood out the most. He broke down the major initiatives that the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform has been focused on since the spring of 2011, when he signed a bill to create the special council during his first few months in office. After sharing the dramatic results he was seeing in Georgia, Deal began crying as he discussed drug court graduations. His oldest son is a drug court judge in Georgia, and that system’s success in changing people’s lives is what first prompted Deal’s interest in statewide criminal justice reform.

I was only vaguely aware of Deal’s interest in this subject, but am now happy to join the chorus of liberal praise.

When I wrote about this subject earlier this week, I was a bit annoyed at suggestions that Democrats were as much to blame as Republicans for the pre-reform nightmare of prisons full of people serving long mandatory sentences with no realistic hope for reintegration into society. But in Georgia, that might actually be true. I will never forget my shock and shame when my then-boss, Gov. Zell Miller, one-upped the national stampede towards mandatory minimum sentences in 1994 by proposing a “two strikes and you’re out” law imposing life sentences on any repeat felony offenders. It was such a naked and mindless act of opportunism, though entirely in keeping with Miller’s re-election strategy that year of moving as far to the right as he possibly could on any topic other than the one he actually cared about, education (as it was, he nearly lost anyway). I had nothing to do with the proposal, and was soon out the door to Washington, where I spent a fair amount of time attacking the kind of crap Miller had proposed. But I don’t recall many Georgia Democrats objecting.

So yes, Deal deserves some real credit here. It doesn’t mean we have to approve, retroactively or prospectively, his other deeds and positions. But like love, getting this particular subject right covers a multitude of sins.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.