Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign new juvenile justice reforms Thursday, but he previewed his goals for more criminal justice reform next year Tuesday at an Atlanta Press Club luncheon.
Deal spoke to a packed house at the Capital City Club, giving an overview of some of the state’s key laws and efforts of the 2013 legislative term, answering questions on a variety of issues and giving his own frank assessment of the press. Brenau University was the event’s presenting sponsor.
Deal praised the press coverage of the criminal justice reforms he’s worked on in the past few years.
“You truly are the ones that have the power to get out the messages,” he said. “And we appreciate the fact that you assisted us greatly in those undertakings.”
The new juvenile justice reform bill he’s expected to sign later this week rewrites and reorganizes juvenile law, including allowing courts to defer cases to mediation, creating new approaches to unruly children and clarifying the laws for children who have committed adult crimes. Deal said the success rate for juveniles was dismal, with half of offenders returning to prison, many as adult offenders.
“Young people who have been in trouble have great difficulty returning to the school from which they left before they got in trouble,” he said.
The criminal code reforms Deal signed in 2012 focused on several structural changes, including diverting offenders from prison by creating degrees of seriousness for drug and theft violations, such as burglary, forgery and simple drug possession. It also included reducing the rate that people return to prison by strengthening probation and other monitoring and improving community-based options, such as accountability courts. Last week, he signed the second edition to that law that changed mandatory sentencing minimums.
“Last year, the General Assembly passed major criminal justice reform,” Deal said. “It takes us in a direction we should go.”
Deal said the state is in negotiations with a digital-based charter school to offer digital educational classes in the juvenile justice system so offenders can get a high school diploma or GED certificate.
“We think that is the right thing to do,” Deal said.
Adults also have the challenge of re-entry after being paroled, Deal said. Try getting a job with a felony criminal record. Functioning in society is very difficult and it’s hard to find a job, he said.
“That is the next arena of criminal justice reform that I intend to try to pursue,” Deal said. “I’m going to ask the Criminal Justice Reform Commission to take that under their wing this next year.”
The second reform bill Deal recently signed also created the commission, which will review the juvenile and criminal justice systems. In 2011, the legislature established a council on criminal justice reform that reviewed adult sentencing and corrections information.
Deal spoke about a successful program at the Governor’s Mansion where inmates work luncheons and banquets in tuxedos. Some had been convicted of serious crimes, Deal said. He said he has helped some of them find a job once released.
“Those are the stories that don’t often get told,” he said. “Many times they can’t be told because of privacy concerns.”
Deal also highlighted the state’s efforts on education, ethics reform and economic development. He took questions for nearly 20 minutes after his remarks, answering questions about state and federal issues, including dredging the Port of Savannah, state and federal immigration laws and the tri-state water wars.