Political Insider

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In Cleveland, Nathan Deal pitches Georgia's criminal justice overhaul to GOPers

Cleveland - Gov. Nathan Deal brought his pitch for a conservative version of criminal justice overhaul to the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, casting the changes as a consensus-building legislation that could save billions and soften the party’s image.

“From a Republican point of view, this shows that we’re not what many paint us to be: The lock ‘em up, throw away the key type,” Deal told a U.S. Justice Action Network panel. “We know the old methods weren’t keeping people safe. And when you convince them that the old ways weren’t doing that, most people weren’t coming on board.”

Joined by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, the governors were among a group of influential Republicans advocating for a new approach to the criminal justice system that diverts more drug offenders from lengthy prison sentences.

Deal has built his political legacy on criminal justice issues at the state level. He’s helped steer millions in recent years toward programs aimed at combating criminal relapse and urging judges to move away from stiff mandatory minimums.

At the same time, though, Congress has gridlocked over federal legislation that would reduce mandatory prison sentences for low-level nonviolent cases and give judges more discretion in certain crimes. Republican Sen. David Perdue, who called one version of the measure a “criminal leniency bill,” is among the conservatives worried it could lead to the early release of violent offenders.

The 2016 platform approved on Monday applauds many of the state-level criminal justice changes embraced by Georgia and some other conservative states, but it also endorses the death penalty and calls mandatory minimum sentences "an important tool." The three governors presented their states’ overhauls as a sort of middle ground that Congress could emulate.

“We need to be tough on crime,” said Bevin. “But I ran on this issue because as a state, clearly we could do better.”

And Deal said his criminal justice package, which took up most of his first term, was a key part of his second-term agenda: An overhaul of the state’s education system starting with the state’s decades-old funding formula.

“I tell my state, and we’re in the midst of my last two years, we’re going to focus on education reform,” Deal said. “And to me, education reform is the ultimate criminal justice reform.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.