Ever since Donald Trump was inaugurated, he has been confronted with a counter-movement called “the resistance.” This resistance is comprised of Democrats who oppose Trump’s actions as president. They have conducted mass marches to protest the president’s policies, town halls to push back against attempts to kill Obamacare and energetic campaigns in special elections like Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
There is one area where the resistance has included not only dissident Democrats, but the highest-ranking Republican in state government, Gov. Nathan Deal. This is ironic indeed when you remember that Deal supported Trump in last fall’s election. But on the issue of criminal justice reform, Deal has refused to go along with Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Sessions has instructed all federal prosecutors to reverse the efforts of the Obama Administration to keep low-level drug offenders out of federal prisons. The feds will now go for the maximum charge possible on every defendant, with the goal being to pack as many people as possible into prison cells. The Sessions approach is a revival of the war on drugs of the 1980s and other lock-them-up programs that bloated prison rolls and caused correctional budgets to skyrocket.
Why is Sessions doing this? Follow the money. Sessions has financial investments in at least two companies that operate private prisons. The more people the Justice Department sends to prison, the more money these private prison companies stand to make—and the more value Sessions’ investments have.
From the very beginning of his administration, Deal has taken a different approach. In his first inaugural address in 2011, Deal said the state just could not afford to keep locking up so many drug addicts in prison. “It is draining our state treasury and depleting our work force,” Deal said.
He appointed a criminal justice reform commission that recommended several changes in the state’s sentencing laws so that non-violent offenders could be diverted to programs that provided an alternative to incarceration. Because of these revisions, the corrections department says that 67 percent of the state’s prison beds are now occupied by the most serious offenders, up from 58 percent in 2009. Georgia now has 139 accountability courts—an alternative to imprisonment—and the number of new participants entering these courts statewide increased by 147 percent in 2016 alone. Felony drug courts had 2,381 active participants, many of whom are struggling with substance abuse and would probably be in a state prison if not for option of this alternative court. It was once projected that Georgia would have 60,000 people behind bars by now; the number instead is about 52,000.
Even as Sessions was drafting his order for federal prosecutors to resume packing the prisons, Deal was signing the latest round of criminal justice bills passed during this year’s legislative session, including some revisions in the state’s probation system.
“This most recent legislative package is another meaningful step forward in making Georgia a safer, more prosperous place to call home,” Deal said upon signing the bills. “The unprecedented criminal justice reforms we’ve implemented since 2009 have already had a remarkable and positive impact, with overall prison commitments down 15.4 percent through the end of 2016.”
Deal is not the only high-ranking official with this point of view. There are more than 30 states, including such red states as Texas and South Carolina, that are also trying to reduce incarceration rates by giving judges more alternatives to mandatory minimums and enacting more alternatives to prison such as drug treatment.
Deal would no doubt disagree sharply with any attempt to categorize him as part of the “resistance” to a president whose election he backed. But on this one, he and top officials in dozens of other states have made it clear that they are resisting the Trump Administration.
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