Pubdate: Fri, 21 Jun 2013
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Neil King Jr.


GAINESVILLE, Ga. - Weeks after his election as Georgia governor in 
2010, Nathan Deal was pulled aside by a conservative state lawmaker 
with urgent business to discuss.

Rep. Jay Neal, a small-town pastor, said he had the seeds of a plan 
to cut Georgia's swelling prison population, which was costing 
taxpayers over $1 billion a year. The governor-elect didn't let Mr. 
Neal get far.

"The minute I mentioned what I wanted to do, he jumped in with what 
he wanted to do," Mr. Neal recalled. "And it turns out we were 
talking about the same thing."

That pairing of a pastor with a former prosecutor, both Republicans, 
helped pave the way for dramatic revamping of Georgia's criminal 
code. New rules enacted over the past two legislative sessions are 
steering nonviolent offenders away from prison, emphasizing 
rehabilitation over jail time, and lessening the penalties for many 
drug and property crimes.

Georgia is the latest example of a Republican-led state drive to 
replace tough-on-crime dictums of the 1990s with a more forgiving and 
nuanced set of laws. Leading the charge in states such as Texas, 
Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina and South Dakota are GOP 
lawmakers""and in most cases Republican governors""who once favored 
stiff prison terms aimed at driving down crime.

Motivations for the push are many. Budget pressures and burgeoning 
prison costs have spurred new thinking. Some advocates point to data 
showing that harsh prison sentences often engender more crime. Among 
the key backers are conservative Christians talking of redemption and 
libertarians who have come to see the prison system as the embodiment 
of a heavy-handed state. And crime rates are falling nationally, a 
trend that has continued in most of the states putting fewer people in jail.

The movement also dovetails with the quest of some Republicans to 
soften the party's edges and to plunge into new policy areas that 
affect the poor and the disadvantaged. The initiatives have drawn 
praise from groups that aren't often allied with the GOP, including 
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and 
the American Civil Liberties Union. The result is some unlikely 
bedfellows, with the conservative American Legislative Exchange 
Council working alongside the ACLU.

"Criminal justice is the area where conservative thinking has most 
changed with the times," said Eli Lehrer, a former GOP Senate staffer 
and conservative activist in Washington, who has written extensively 
on the push for new sentencing rules. He describes the push as "the 
most important social reform effort on the right since the rise of 
the pro-life movement in the 1970s."

Just over half of the states have embarked on criminal-justice 
overhauls of varying scope over the past five years, with 19 of those 
efforts led by Republican governors or GOP legislatures and nine by 
Democratic governors or legislatures. Some of the most aggressive 
moves have come in states, many in the South, with incarceration 
rates well above the national average.

The number of inmates in state prisons nationally peaked at just over 
1.4 million around 2009 after rising for decades, and by 2011 had 
fallen by about 25,000, according to Justice Department statistics.

The downturn has been particularly welcome in states that had 
projected a continued surge in prison numbers. Ohio, which was 
bracing for an inmate population of over 57,000 by the end of the 
decade, has seen its number fall by nearly 1% a year since 2009.

Changes to sentencing laws haven't sailed everywhere. In Indiana, an 
aggressive push in 2011 by then Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels got 
watered down""and eventually abandoned""after it ran into opposition 
from prosecutors. GOP Gov. Rick Scott in Florida cited public safety 
last year when he vetoed a bill to cut the sentences for nonviolent 
drug offenders.

The conservative quest to rethink criminal sentencing and rewrite 
state penal codes got its start in Texas, when GOP lawmakers in 2007 
balked at the need to build three new prisons to house an anticipated 
17,000 more prisoners by 2012. They decided instead to revamp the 
state's probation system and boost funding for addiction treatment 
and rehabilitation by $241 million.

The state prison population has declined by nearly 6,000 inmates 
since 2008 after decades of rapid growth and during a time when the 
state's own population has continued to swell. In 2011, Texas shut a 
prison for the first time in state history.

Behind the Texas efforts stood a conservative local think tank, the 
Texas Public Policy Foundation, and one of its top donors, a wealthy 
oil man from Odessa named Tim Dunn. Mr. Dunn paid to establish a 
center within the foundation in 2005 to focus on overhauling the 
state's criminal code.

An evangelical Christian with a strong libertarian bent, Mr. Dunn 
said he watched for years as Texas' crime rate continued to climb 
even while its prison population swelled. "I had come to see our 
justice system as imperial, as intent on maintaining the authority of 
the king. It was no longer communal or restorative," he said.

Under the directorship of Texas lawyer Marc Levin, the policy 
foundation became the hub of a national movement as requests for 
legislative help poured in from other states. The center adopted a 
formal platform in early 2010 and took its campaign national under 
the name Right on Crime.

It soon had the backing of a long list of conservative supporters, 
among them former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Reagan Attorney 
General Ed Meese, former drug czar Bob Bennett and David Keene, until 
recently president of the National Rifle Association.

The group and its Republican followers are sensitive to charges that 
they are going soft on crime, "that we want to hug a thug," as Mr. 
Dunn puts it.

But they insist they are moving to correct a system that tilted too 
far toward punishment, without any gauge for success or failure. 
State prison populations swelled 700% between 1970 and 2009, from 
174,000 inmates to 1.4 million.

Legislatures across the country have rewritten their criminal-justice 
codes. A few Democratic governors have jumped in, including 
Arkansas's Mike Beebe and Hawaii's Neil Ambercrombie. New York and 
Connecticut made changes even before Texas did.

But "on balance, it has been conservatives who have been out front," 
said Adam Gelb, who directs a national criminal-justice initiative at 
the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has worked on initiatives across the country.

In many states, former law-and-order prosecutors and judges have led 
the effort. In others, pastors-turned-lawmakers have jumped in. Many 
describe eureka moments that altered their views.

In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a former prosecutor, 
helped pass many of the state's toughest sentencing laws in the 
1980s. The Republican lawmaker then watched as both the crime rate 
and the prison population continued to soar. He is now the leading 
force in the state to promote alternatives to prison, boost 
rehabilitation programs and soften the rules on probation 
violations""all of which have been put into effect.

For Ohio Republican state Sen. Bill Seitz, a turning point came in 
the late 2000s, when he watched the voters in his county, which 
includes Cincinnati, twice vote down levies to build a new jail. "It 
became all the clearer to me how we pass tough sentencing laws with a 
blind eye to the fiscal impacts," he said.

He has since successfully championed legislation in Ohio to steer new 
nonviolent felons away from prison, to speed the release of some who 
are already locked up and to make it easier for them to erase their 
criminal record and find work when they get out.

As a result, Ohio's prison population dropped to 49,700 inmates at 
the end of last year from a peak of 51,278 in 2008.

In Georgia, Gov. Deal and Rep. Neal arrived at their partnership via 
similar and very personal paths.

Mr. Deal says his evolution came about largely on the streets of his 
hometown of Gainesville, an hour's drive north of Atlanta. For nearly 
a decade, his son Jason has presided over a drug court designed to 
rehabilitate addicts charged with felonies and to keep them out of prison.

The future governor often went to graduation ceremonies where 
recovering addicts would tell their stories. "They all have their own 
stories, but a common thread runs through all of them," Gov. Deal 
said. "They had lied. They had stolen. They had alienated their 
spouses, their parents, their siblings. But they were given a second 
chance, and they had been rehabilitated."

As a pastor, Mr. Neal came to know recovering addicts in his church. 
In 2005, he guided into law a measure to crack down on 
methamphetamine labs, which were plaguing his corner of northeastern 
Georgia. At the urging of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, he 
later went to a seminar in Philadelphia on the science of drug addiction.

"That was my real ah-ha moment," he said. "I realized there are so 
many factors in people's lives we can't simply punish away."

The governor never mentioned a sentencing overhaul during his 2010 
campaign. But he had mulled the issue privately, and he agreed to 
join forces with Rep. Neal and other lawmakers to make a major push 
in his first term.

He announced his intentions in his first speech before the state 
legislature in January 2011. "We cannot afford to have so many of our 
citizens waste their lives because of addictions," he said. "It is 
draining our state treasury and depleting our workforce."

Georgia at the time had the country's highest rate of people caught 
up in the criminal justice system, according to Pew, with one in 13 
of its residents behind bars, on probation or on parole. The tab to 
the state: $3 million a day.

The state passed laws to steer nonviolent criminals away from prison, 
to give judges wider discretion in sentencing and to make it easier 
for defendants to seek rehabilitation services. The governor also put 
$10 million a year into expanding so-called accountability courts, 
such as the drug court his son, Jason Deal, presides over in Hall and 
Dawson counties. The number of such courts has nearly tripled in 
Georgia under Gov. Deal, to 247, compared with 87 in December 2010.

In Gainesville, 427 would-be felons have graduated from Judge Deal's 
drug court since it began nearly a decade ago. Each went through a 
two-year program of mandatory employment or schooling, frequent drug 
tests and group counseling. The program costs around $13 a day per 
person, compared with $50 a day to feed and house a state prisoner. 
After their release, nearly a third of state prisoners end up 
committing another crime. The recidivism rate among drug-court 
graduates is just 8%, a recent state audit found.

Jennie Mercado is on course to graduate soon from Judge Deal's drug 
court. Arrested two years ago on multiple felony drug counts, the 
27-year-old Texas native said she went to church the day before her 
arrest to pray that some force would step in to alter her life.

"I was a total full-time junkie and thief for 10 years," she said. 
Once facing a year in prison, she is now training to be a nurse. She 
gave birth to a daughter three months ago.

She now speaks of her arrest and trip through drug court as a stroke 
of luck. "Nothing but great stuff has come out of this," she said.

Supporters of the changes in Georgia and other states note that 
elected officials such as Gov. Deal have done little to publicize 
their efforts, much less campaign on them.

Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, sees that as a missed 
opportunity. "This is an area where Republicans can really connect 
with black voters," he said.

Gov. Deal acknowledges there are risks in championing prison changes. 
"You always worry about being accused of being soft on crime," he 
said. But through a spokesman he said he now "very much wants to be 
seen as the face of prison reform in this state."

A version of this article appeared June 21, 2013, on page A1 in the 
U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: As 
Prisons Squeeze Budgets, GOP Rethinks Crime Focus.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom