Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

One part of Nathan Deal's legacy that's already written

ATHENS -- Second terms are supposed to be for legacies: actions and bills with lasting impact which can only be accomplished by an executive who won’t face the voters again.

There’s an oxymoron to unpack there, but that’s for another column. This one is about a legacy achievement that began in a first term but has gained far too little notice.

Nathan Deal’s inaugural address in January 2011 contained a short surprise. Before he got to education, transportation, water or health care -- perennial challenges for administrations in Georgia -- the new governor delved briefly into a subject most of us prefer to ignore: our criminal justice system.

A decades-long decline in violent crime has weakened it as a political issue, to the point politicians can talk about improving the lot of the convicts themselves.

We’re not talking about violent and/or sexual offenders. Those are the dangerous people whom, Deal told legislators Tuesday during their biennial conference at the University of Georgia, “most of us believe a prison system is for.”

Rather, Deal’s initial reforms focused on non-violent drug offenders. These are people better served by supervision under an “accountability court” than by prison stints that, too often, introduce relatively minor offenders to a life of real crime.

The fiscal attractiveness of such reforms is significant: savings of $25 million in the first two years, Deal said. The human and economic components, though, could reach even farther.

“If you are no better equipped when you leave prison than when you entered prison, in terms of being able to adjust and be a meaningful participant in society, then we should never expect very good results,” Deal said.

An examination of Georgia’s prison population, Deal said, found seven in 10 inmates had less than a high school education. “If you don’t have that basic level of education, and you are patted on the back and put out the door,” he said, “your chance of success in staying out in civilized society without getting in trouble again is not a very good percentage.”

With that theory -- and statistics indicating $1 spent on basic education for inmates will yield $5 worth of reduced recidivism and crimes -- in mind, Deal hired schools superintendent Buster Evans away from Forsyth County this summer and tasked him with boosting prison education programs.

From July to October, Deal reported Tuesday, the number of Georgia’s 60,000 inmates involved in basic education programs rose to 4,500 from just 700. An additional 2,390 were enrolled in vocational training. Those are thousands of potentially reclaimed lives.

More are coming. Beginning next year, the prison system will work with one charter school in the Northeast Georgia mountains and another near Athens to offer high-school courses to prisoners. Already, Deal said, one female inmate who had been just one course short of a high school diploma is nearly ready to graduate.

Deal touted these programs as an example of “abstract legislative language … (that) when it is implemented, makes a difference in the lives of these individuals.”

He’s right to be proud of it. We’d be right to notice.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.