Federal sentencing rollback veers away from path Georgia has taken

Even as Gov. Nathan Deal was signing the latest batch of state laws designed to keep lower-level offenders out of prison, the Trump administration was preparing a crackdown seeking the toughest possible charges against offenders convicted of nonviolent drug violations.

The U.S. Justice Department released directives Friday that call for more mandatory minimum sentences and direct prosecutors to pursue the strictest punishments available. It was a sweeping shift in criminal justice policy, reversing Obama-era policies to reduce penalties for some nonviolent offenses.

“It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote in a memo to prosecutors, though he added there are some cases “in which good judgment” could lead authorities to stray from that policy.

The split has Georgia’s Republican leaders trying to reconcile an approach to criminal justice that echoed Barack Obama’s policies with a return to a tough-on-crime ethos from Donald Trump’s White House.

Deal’s criminal justice initiatives have transformed Georgia’s prison system and turned the state into a national model of how a conservative state can embrace a system of accountability courts and other cost-cutting changes to the corrections system while keeping violent offenders locked up.

But those statewide efforts now face a tougher audience in Washington. The new policies reflect Trump’s call for a “law and order” mentality that targets waves of gang violence and drug crime he said undermine the nation’s security.

Deal said Friday that he has no “great concerns” about the Justice Department’s shift, but he urged Trump’s administration to study the impact of Georgia’s initiatives.

“I know that you cannot translate all of that from the state level to the federal level,” the governor said after a press conference in Savannah. “But if they follow that general model and learn from our experiences, the taxpayers of this country will be well served.”

A ‘sore spot’

Conservative states across the South have been at the forefront of revamped criminal justice policies. It began in Texas with a 2007 plan to spend $241 million on treatment and diversion programs rather than new prison beds. Suddenly, liberal groups fighting high incarceration rates had new allies.

In Georgia, Deal put his initiative at the center of his first term. His first criminal justice package allowed Georgia to push more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from expensive prison stays. Judges also got more discretion to depart from mandatory sentences.

At the time he launched the proposal in 2011, the state’s incarceration rate was the fourth-highest in the nation and projections showed the prison population was to grow an additional 8 percent within five years, costing taxpayers an additional $264 million.

Since then, the inmate population has dropped from about 56,000 to about 52,000. That has left what Deal has called a “hardened” core of many violent criminals behind bars. About two-thirds of the state’s prison population was convicted of either a violent offense or a sex crime, up from roughly 60 percent in January 2011.

In more recent years, Georgia has launched initiatives intended to keep young offenders convicted of drug crimes out of juvenile lockups. He has also poured more state resources into rehabilitation programs to reduce the state’s recidivism rate — the proportion of inmates convicted again within three years.

A new round of tweaks to the state’s criminal justice policy brought Deal to Macon on Wednesday as part of a “re-entry summit” of hundreds of law enforcement officials who work to smooth the transition for released offenders.

The most significant of the newly minted laws he signed at the summit creates what Deal called “new parental accountability” standards to ensure that parents play a role in their children’s juvenile court proceedings — or risk a penalty.

Once a part-time juvenile court judge, Deal said the apathy of parents of juvenile offenders was long a “sore spot” for him, and he said the threat of a contempt of court charge could finally give the state “the ability to put some pressure” on parents.

He also said he will spend his final year in office focused on “follow-through” on his criminal justice package, in hopes that his successor in 2019 will also make it a priority.

“Sometimes, all the hoopla is associated with the initial legislation,” he said in an interview. “But it requires follow-through to make it work. We’re in the follow-through stages.”

‘Dumb on crime’

The federal directive was met with fierce criticism from social justice groups and some law enforcement officials.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose 2013 memo encouraged prosecutors to use more discretion when pursuing drug charges, was unsparing in his criticism of the new policy.

“It is dumb on crime,” Holder said in a statement. “It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”

The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which has long supported Deal’s criminal justice approach, urged Trump to study Georgia’s playbook.

“Over the last decade, tough-on-crime rhetoric has been rejected as ineffective and expensive,” said Sara Totonchi, the head of the civil rights group. “This is a major step backward and out of step with conservative-led, common-sense reforms that have been embraced across the nation and especially in Georgia.”

Supporters of the changes said they will prove to be prescient in the long run.

The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys backed the move, calling it an important step to dismantle gangs. And Bill Bennett, the nation’s first drug czar, praised the Justice Department’s tough stance, telling Fox News on Friday that the policies won’t target “some guy in his room toking up on a joint.”

“You know what they’re talking about? They’re talking about drug dealers,” Bennett said. “You tell me if a drug dealer who sells hundreds of pounds or hundreds of ounces of an illegal drug to young people or to anybody is doing harm to the community.”

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.

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