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Deal signs bill to create panel to study criminal justice system
Governor said he hopes to use alternative sentencing in more cases
With members of the Georgia General Assembly standing behind him, Gov. Nathan Deal signs legislation Friday that would create a panel to study the state’s criminal justice system. Deal signed the measure inside the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, his son, at the Hall County Courthouse in Gainesville, saying it would help save taxpayer dollars while finding better ways to rehabilitate offenders. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Georgia's criminal justice system must change, Gov. Nathan Deal said Friday as he signed legislation in his son's Hall County courtroom.

Something is wrong when the state spends more on inmates than students, he said, noting House Bill 265 would help save taxpayer dollars while finding better ways to rehabilitate offenders.

"About 1 in 31 adults are under some correctional control across the country, but Georgia is even worse with 1 in 13," Deal said. "That's a tremendous financial burden to the state and local community ... and today's budget is no longer reflective of our priorities."

The bill creates a panel to study Georgia's criminal justice system in an effort to reform the state's tough sentencing laws.

The 13-member Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians will report its findings in January 2012 so lawmakers can act in the next legislative session.

The committee members will be selected by Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston.

"While we foresee this effort uncovering strategies that will save taxpayer dollars, we are first and foremost attacking the human costs of a society with too much crime, too many behind bars, too many children growing up without a much needed parent and too many wasted lives," Deal said.

Surrounded by his son, Judge Jason Deal, bill sponsor Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, Hall County lawmakers and jurists, Deal said he supports alternative sentencing for certain nonviolent offenders such as drug addicts.

"We must do a better job rehabilitating lives. We know that drug addiction is the root cause of much crime," he said. "Our entire society benefits if we can turn these tax burdens into taxpayers."

After the bill signing, Judge Jason Deal talked about the tangible benefits he sees during drug court sessions on Fridays.

"If you send someone to jail and don't deal with the problem, the ultimate outcome is they will get out and offend again," he said. "Let me tell you, drug court is more personal. ... You see miracles happen where people get their lives together and get their children back."

Judge Jason Deal introduced drug court graduates Angela Frazier and Mike Wilcoxson, who talked about their own rehabilitation experiences.

"Drug court didn't just keep me out of prison. It gave me a life that, before my arrest, I didn't think was possible," Frazier said. "Life was chaotic and crazy. I used to say it was a tornado."

Wilcoxson, who hadn't worked in four years, said his life was in a "downward spiral."

"One thing drug court has done for me is give me a sense of purpose in my life, to set goals for myself, to be accountable for my actions and to break the cycle of addiction I had," Wilcoxson said.

"Drug abuse has always been a struggle in my family. I come from a line of alcoholics. Being able to break that cycle has changed my life and my family."

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