Georgia leads prison reform efforts

Moderated by Rick Badie

Georgia has become a national leader when it comes to criminal justice reform. Last month, a blue-ribbon panel, set up by Congress to address needed changes in the federal prison system, visited Atlanta to tour facilities and talk with area leaders about comprehensive justice reform. Our lead column highlights that visit. A companion essay encourages Georgia lawmakers to support the state’s criminal justice reform effort. The third column stresses the importance of legal aid in fighting poverty.

Learning from Georgia’s criminal justice overhaul

By Jay Neal and Cynthia Roseberry

When it comes to fixing a broken criminal justice system, the federal government can learn a lot from Georgia. That’s why we Georgians are honored to serve on the Charles Colson Federal Corrections Task Force, a blue-ribbon panel set up by Congress to address our nation’s dangerously overcrowded and under-resourced federal prison system.

The federal prison population is more than 206,000. That is 8.4 times what it was in 1980, costing taxpayers nearly $7 billion a year. Drug offenders represent the greatest share of inmates. In 2014, drug trafficking offenders made up almost half the federally sentenced population. Their numbers have nearly doubled over 10 years, from fewer than 50,000 in 1994 to more than 95,000 in 2014.

Since January, our task force has been consulting with stakeholders of every stripe – judges, defenders, prosecutors, corrections officers and inmates – to figure out how to create a safer, more cost-effective system. There’s a growing consensus it’s possible to reduce the prison population while allowing inmates to better their odds of transitioning successfully into life outside prison walls. Last month, our work brought us to Atlanta, where we heard from leaders of Georgia’s state justice reform effort, toured the federal penitentiary and met with staff and inmates.

States like Georgia are well ahead of the federal government when it comes to addressing overcrowded prisons. Over the past four years under the leadership of Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgia’s bipartisan criminal justice reform effort has saved the state more than $264 million and avoided the need for 5,000 additional prison beds.

We spoke with the co-chairs of Georgia’s criminal justice reform council to hear what it takes to perform such a comprehensive justice system overhaul. They emphasized the importance of coming together across party lines, grounding programs in data, and bringing in perspectives of people most affected by the system. They also focused on implementation, a reminder that the hard work and dedication must continue once reforms are adopted.

At the federal penitentiary, we saw a specialized unit for solitary confinement, a separate unit for inmates with diagnosed mental illness and a history of violence, and a minimum security camp. We saw for ourselves the strain placed on these facilities for those who work there and those serving time. At the end of September 2014, overcrowding was at 39 percent in medium and 52 percent in high-security federal facilities. This presents security threats to inmates and staff and inhibits the ability to offer programs designed to prevent reoffenses upon release.

In our conversations with Bureau of Prisons officials and corrections staff, we paid close attention to the programming available for inmates, as well as the training correctional officers receive to effectively perform their jobs as agents of rehabilitation. We also asked how they’re measuring the success of their inmate preparedness programs, as we know it’s critical to figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and to build accountability systemwide.

Our discussions with inmates hit some common themes. Many felt there were not enough programs available to truly prepare them for the modern-day job market. Given the majority of people serving time in our prisons will come home at some point, it’s crucial they get skills to make an honest living upon release.

What we learned and saw in Atlanta will factor heavily into our discussions as we spend the remainder of 2015 developing recommendations to fix the federal prison system. With bipartisan criminal justice reform gaining momentum on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration taking recent executive action on clemency, the timing couldn’t be better. We look forward to contributing data-driven, results-oriented, comprehensive recommendations that will push the envelope even further.

Jay Neal, executive director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Re-entry, and Cynthia Roseberry, project manager of Clemency Project 2014, serve on the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections.

Confront the ugliness of incarceration

By Kate Boccia

Rarely a day goes by that there isn’t some kind of article or news story on criminal justice reform. If you haven’t been paying attention to this very important subject, you need to.

As a 57-year-old Georgia resident, I can assure you this topic is something that affects every one of us who live and pay taxes in this country. It is our moral obligation to fully understand the impact our ignorance is having on all of us.

With the transparency social media creates, we can’t hide the ugly truth about mass incarceration anymore. My face is the “‘new face” of incarceration. My life is spent working tirelessly to bring light to the subjects many families of the incarcerated are afraid to discuss. I spend almost every weekend behind razor wire visiting my 24-year-old-son, who has been locked up for almost three years. I know the truth that you can never understand unless you live it.

What I have learned during this difficult journey for my family is that it is impossible to expect anything but failure when an inmate is released from prison. It’s not only the way they are treated or the lack of programs inside, but that our correctional officers are underpaid and have no real way of making any impact on the incarcerated. They are considered by many unworthy of a job as a gym teacher, yet they work inside prisons for 12-hour shifts – basically locked up like those they guard.

Who would want that job for the petty $24,000-a-year starting salary?

My son’s story is a classic example of our failures, and his story is just one of thousands we warehouse in prisons. Few have the help they need to not go back.

Consider how my son lives every day. Housed with more than 80 guys in an open dorm. Artificial lightening, noise 24/7 so loud it is deafening, no programs because he has too much time to serve, food barely fit for human consumption, limited and very insufficient dental and health care, constant fear, no treatment or rehabilitation, no educational opportunity, very little outdoor time, no access to current news or books, no understanding of the new world of technology, and never told he is a good kid. Multiply this by the thousands that will return to their communities, and you should get my point.

I speak openly about the fact the Georgia Department of Corrections has my son. It’s not their fault, but it’s their problem. They didn’t arrest him, indict him or convict him. They just got him, and with no money or resources, this is a recipe for disaster, as has been proven for years.

With Governor Deal’s focus on criminal justice reform, we have an opportunity to make Georgia a leader in reform instead of recidivism. We need to have open, honest communication to bring about necessary changes.

Make no mistake: I am quite clear on those we are afraid who need incarceration. But to keep our communities safe, every one of our returning citizens needs to come home as a productive citizen with more than the shirt on his back and the $25 the state gives him.

I challenge all elected officials to learn the truth about mass incarceration and to support any legislation that will put an end to the destruction of our communities. This election year is a good time to step forward and say you will support the 55,000-plus families of the incarcerated so that we can return the favor and vote for you.

Kate Boccia is board chairman for The Hub Family Resource Center in Johns Creek.

Legal aid fights Georgia poverty

By Phyllis Holmen

I went to law school with a vision of making a difference in the world. Those were the heady days of demonstrations and organizations, of picketing and protesting — the days when we watched the rule of law sustain our democracy. A peaceful departure of a disgraced president, a world leader’s relinquishment of power, showed Americans the strength of our democracy.

But my dream as a young law student hasn’t turned out quite like I’d hoped.

Poverty plagues us. In fact, we anticipate Georgia’s poverty rate will be higher than ever this year — and with it, access to justice is diminished. Two million Georgians live in poverty, including one in four of our children, up significantly from just seven years ago when it was one in five. Nearly a third of Georgians struggle to keep food on the table. Increasingly, more seniors go without heat or needed medicine. I’ve come to see that eliminating poverty is a truly complex undertaking, especially in Georgia, where the chances of escaping it are among the worst in the U.S.

Do I throw in the towel? No.

I also see the importance of civil legal aid in the fight against poverty. A quarter of Georgia’s population is eligible for legal assistance, yet lawyers outside Atlanta are scarce, as 70 percent work in the capital city. This gap makes funding legal aid critical to rural Georgians’ ability to seek justice, whether to fight an unlawful eviction, escape a violent situation and seek spousal support, obtain health care through Medicaid and Medicare, or protect access to affordable housing.

Such legal victories truly can make a difference. Legal advice can play a very real role helping an individual climb the economic ladder, often securing basic needs and protecting the stability needed to maintain these and advance further. Minnesota Judge Kevin Burke said it another way: “(A) good lawyer can mean the difference between sickness or health, oppression or liberty, fear or peace of mind.”

Most lawyers know this, or they wouldn’t do what they do. But those who offer civil legal aid to needy clients, many of whom work for non-profit law firms funded by the Legal Services Corporation, are being forced to turn away more and more low-income Americans seeking help. Congress is failing to provide the resources to offer needy clients the hand up that would help lift them out of poverty.

Federal funding that supports these lawyers has failed to keep up with inflation even as poverty grows. Since it was first funded by Congress in 1976, funding for legal aid through Legal Services has been cut by more than half, taking inflation into account. Meanwhile, Georgia’s poverty population continues to grow. While many Georgians are finding their way out of the Great Recession, there are too many for whom recovery remains a dream.

With civil legal aid, they might find that opportunity out of poverty. Without it, the dream dies.

Phyllis Holmen is executive director of the Georgia Legal Services Program.

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