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Nathan Deal’s legacy of criminal justice reform is now enshrined on a building
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Former Governor of Georgia Nathan Deal is teaching a class in Political Science at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. - photo by Scott Rogers

Former Gov. Nathan Deal may be best known for the criminal justice reforms he implemented during his eight years in the state’s Capitol.

And that work won’t quickly be forgotten with the newly named Nathan Deal Judicial Center on Capitol Avenue in Atlanta.

“It is, I think, compatible with the criminal justice reforms that we put in place during my administration,” Deal said during a sitdown interview with The Times late last month at the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus, where he is now teaching political science.

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Former Governor of Georgia Nathan Deal and his former chief of staff and campaign manager Chris Riley, right, walk across the campus of the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega where Deals teaches a Political Science class. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Nathan Deal Judicial Center houses the Supreme Court of Georgia as well as the Court of Appeals, which both moved into the new facility in December.

When asked when he learned about the plan to name the judicial center, the former governor said it caught him by surprise. 

Speaker of the House David Ralston and others introduced a resolution in November 2018 to name the building. It was signed May 7 of last year.

The building will be dedicated Tuesday, Feb. 11. U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas will be the keynote speaker at the event. Deal, Gov. Brian Kemp, state Attorney General Christopher Carr are expected to attend. 

Deal credited those in the Georgia General Assembly who helped him over the years in seeing through his vision of criminal justice reform.

“You don’t pass that legislation as a governor alone. You have to have the support of the general assembly, and surprisingly over the seven years that we had criminal justice reform legislation, virtually every one of those pieces passed almost unanimously,” he said.

Deal said he recognized early on that it couldn’t be a one-shot effort, that things would have to slowly form over time.

“First of all, it was a controversial subject in some people’s minds, because we were still to some degree locked in the old ‘lock ’‘em up mentality and throw away the key.’ To break that mentality was important,” Deal said.

Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard said she considered Deal’s reform the “most significant change in our criminal justice legal system certainly of my career, certainly of my lifetime.”

“Nathan Deal uniquely brought bipartisan multi-disciplinary representatives to the table, and his mantra very early was, ‘We have to save prison for people who are dangerous that society needs to be protected from … instead of people that we’re mad at,’” Woodard said.

Deal tapped Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, as a floor leader in 2012 and 2015-2016, working to advance the govenor’s agenda among the legislators.

Miller said the former governor “has planted in the orchard of his fellow man fruit that he will never reap.”

“Generations to come will benefit from his vision, his insight, his intellect and his compassion,” he said.

Some of that fruit, Miller said, was allowing people who made minor mistakes earlier in their life to turn their lives around.

The felony threshold for theft was raised from $500 to $1,500, and judges were given wider discretion to sentence cases as misdemeanors. 

The felony threshold for shoplifting went from $300 to $500, and the legislature also created a fourth-degree forgery misdemeanor charge. Having a forged check for less than $1,500 or having fewer than 10 forged checks “without a specified amount in a fictitious name” would result in a misdemeanor charge.

The Georgia Accountability Court Program was created to continue rehabilitative efforts and reduce incarceration and recidivism rates. In 2015, the Council of Accountability Court Judges was created to establish standards and practices.

Hall County was among the first counties to have a DUI Court along with Chatham and Clarke counties in 2002. As of 2018, there are now 149 accountability court programs in the state.

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Attendees to DUI Court sit inside Judge Larry Baldwin's courtroom Thursday, June 28, 2019. - photo by Scott Rogers

Woodard said she believes the way judges interact and converse with defendants has changed in the wake of the accountability court expansion.

“I don’t know that before accountability courts I really heard judges encourage a defendant. You certainly didn’t hear people talk badly to folks, but I never heard a judge say something like, ‘You’re going to be able to do this. What do you think? Do you think this will help solve this problem?’” Woodard said.

Miller said the former governor was able to appeal to both sides of the aisle and different factions within the statehouse, from the pragmatic to the fiscal conservatives and the compassionate.

According to a 2018 report from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, it costs $15,523 for each accountability court program graduate, but the state pays $20,320 for traditional adjudication, incarceration and probation.

In addition, the average graduate creates $3,766 in benefits through fees, income taxes being paid and community service. The average graduate also avoids $13,685 in costs paid by the state in health care, the foster care system and “victim and societal costs from recidivism,” according to the Carl Vinson report.

In July 2012, the state prison population was 54,895. Five years later, that number was at 52,692.

The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform also noted that prison commitments fell from 21,650 in 2009 to 17,616 in 2017, which was “the lowest number of commitments since 2002.”

Looking back, Deal said he feels all of the pieces of the criminal justice reform fit together. 

Some of the final parts of the reform effort focused on reentry into society for those exiting our prison system, meaning support for housing and employment. The Department of Community Supervision was created in 2015 to centralize supervision and reentry.

“Those are still two elements that are going to continue to require the public’s support to do that,” Deal said in regard to housing and employment.

During his tour of the building, Deal heard a presentation from a paroled inmate who worked on designing and building many pieces of the furniture around the facility.

“He made the statement that he was very appreciative of the fact that he had been given a chance while he was still in prison to develop these skills,” Deal said.

Other changes during Deal’s time in office include the expansion of the Supreme Court of Georgia in 2016, increasing the number of justice from seven to nine.

Deal appointed five of the justices on the bench today. The Nathan Deal Judicial Center gives them space to work.

“They were already in rather cramped quarters, and with the addition of the extra members, it became very difficult for them to be able to do their business without falling all over each other,” Deal said.

Legislation also delineated which cases would be heard by the Court of Appeals instead of the Supreme Court, including cases involving land titles, most equity cases, wills, divorces and alimony cases.

In 2018, Deal signed a resolution allowing for a constitutional amendment proposal on that year’s ballot for a statewide business court. The amendment passed with 69% of voters approving the measure. 

Cases can be transferred to the business court by the judge or if one party’s motion is granted.

Business court cases typically concern securities violations, class-action issues and other contract disputes. 

“I think it serves the purposes of the people of this state to be able to make sure that the appellate processes can do their job appropriately,” Deal said.

The judicial center dedication will be held at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 11 at the plaza in front of the building, 330 Capitol Ave. SE. 

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