One in three Georgia inmates will return to prison within three years of being placed on parole, but a new state law aims to reduce those numbers and help nonviolent offenders get back to work.
“It is that third leg of the criminal justice reform program that we’ve put in place,” Gov. Nathan Deal said. “The first were the adult accountability courts. Second was the juvenile diversion centers, and this third will be the transition, support and re-entry (program) for those who are in our system who will be getting out.”
Deal signed Senate Bill 365 into law Sunday at Antioch Baptist Church in Gainesville. The changes, part of the governor’s three-pronged approach to criminal justice reform, focuses on helping inmates make the transition from incarceration back into society.
“That is dealing with our population in our prison systems,” Deal said. “Those almost 60,000 individuals. At some point in time, almost all of them will be paroled and will be back in our society. If we do not do what we can to make it possible for them to re-enter and be law-abiding citizens when they re-enter, then we have, in fact, increased the danger to all of us as Georgians.”
According to Deal, one in three inmates on parole end up going back into prison within three years of their release.
“This speaks to a number of issues that Georgia has lagged behind,” said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. Miller was a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 365. “I think the governor has shown great leadership in having this criminal justice reform (be a part of) his administration.”
The bill Deal signed Sunday addresses education levels and job opportunities for former inmates; more will now have access to GED and post-secondary training programs.
“Almost 70 percent of the inmates in our state prison system do not have a high school diploma or a GED,” Deal said. “Now, you know how difficult it is for someone who does not have that kind of basic educational skill to get a job. Tack on top of that, a felony record that you bring with you.”
To help increase education levels among inmates, Deal has hired outgoing Forsyth County Superintendent Buster Evans to join the Department of Corrections in July as the assistant commissioner of education.
“We’re going to turn many of these individuals around,” Deal said. “We’re going to give them the chance to do what they did not take advantage of ... when they were younger. And that was to get a high school diploma.”
Deal also said the state will set an example for private sector employers by not automatically dismissing job applicants with a criminal history.
“We decided Georgia can set the right example,” Deal said. “With the exception of certain jobs that would require a little higher scrutiny of background, all of the other jobs — which is a vast majority of jobs in state government —somebody will not be automatically rejected because they had to check that box.
“If somebody has taken advantage of the opportunity to change their life and to change who they are, they deserve the chance to tell somebody that’s considering them for a job what those changes have been.”
A certification program will be created to help adult inmates better transition out of prison and back into their community. After course completion and their release, they’ll be able to show that certificate to potential employers.
“I support the governor in his efforts to provide additional opportunities for offenders to transition successfully back into society,” Warden Walt Davis of the Hall County Correctional Institute said. “That’s really the gist of it. He’s setting up things, he’s putting things into motion, he’s looking at some changes ... to help eliminate some of those things, and to allow a more successful transition. I commend him for that.”
The law encompasses other areas well, including giving judges more discretion when suspending the driver’s license of someone with a minor drug offense.
It also revises some aspects of foster care, including making sure a child’s long-term housing plan is periodically reviewed to ensure it’s still the best plan for that child.
“When does a kid go into foster care? Why does he go into foster care?” Miller said. “If he has a delinquent act, how do you handle it? That’s important, because children should have an environment of support and encouragement and stability. This speaks to that, and this speaks to foster care children being provided a better venue and a more stable home environment.”
Deal hopes the changes, once implemented, will decrease how many offenders return to prison, instead remaining at home and able to contribute to their families and communities.
“How fast will we see the changes? I can’t tell you that,” the governor said. “Sometimes, you have to plant the seedling and wait a few years to be able to sit under the shade of it.
“But if you never plant the seedling, you’ll never have the tree to sit under. So today, we’re planting the seedling.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report