State Sen. Michael Williams, the Republican incumbent for District 27, and Daniel Blackman, a Democrat who is on the ballot for the same seat, debated their opinions and solutions to mass incarceration Monday at University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy hosted the debate.
“The other day, at my office in downtown Cumming, I had the chance to engage a young man who unfortunately went to prison because of a heroin addiction he had,” Blackman said. “Heroin destroyed his life. And as a result, 14 of his friends have died of heroin over a three or four year period.”
Blackman continued, saying having a felony on a permanent record makes it harder for an individual to get a job.
“I want to be very clear: I believe if a person breaks the law, they’re accountable for it,” he said. “But I also believe if a person has a drug addiction or a habit, we should do everything we can to make sure they get the treatment and rehabilitation they need.”
Williams said he also believes the solution lies with rehabilitation, not incarceration.
“About half of the inmates in Forsyth County are suffering from addiction or some type of mental illness,” he said. “Forsyth County is also part of the Atlanta heroin triangle, meaning we’ve seen an increase in heroin deaths of about 3,800 percent. About 40 times as many people are dying of heroin deaths as they did six years ago.”
Williams said the history of mass incarceration lies with seeking to punish suppliers or “dealers.” But he said he believes the solution is in decreasing demand for drugs, not focusing only on decreasing the suppliers.
Both candidates said they are parents of Forsyth County children, and they believe the solution begins with education at a young age. Their opinions differed mostly when it comes to private prisons.
While Williams said he does not believe any private organization should make a profit off the enforcement of the law, he is not entirely opposed to private prisons.
“I’m not as against private prisons as Mr. Blackman is, as long as there are safeguards in place to make sure the people living in these prisons incarcerated are being treated fairly,” Williams said.
But Blackman said “private prisons have cost far too much.”
“What we need in this country is education, not incarceration,” he said. “The reality is private prisons have not only got into it for the wrong reasons, but they’ve profited off destroying people’s lives.”
Several student organizations, including the Black Student Union, the Politically Incorrect Club and Students for a Progressive Society were on hand for the event with booths providing information about their clubs and programs.
Hunter Knight, president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said the debate was one of several things the student organization does to encourage education and change.
“We’re a grassroots organization all around the world,” Knight said. “We’re basically a club that tries to promote harm-reduction policy reform, trying to make the world more safe.”
Williams is U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Georgia co-chair, while Blackman was the Georgia political director for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Tom Preston, the university’s director of debate, moderated the discussion.
Preston commended the audience and the candidates for their civil participation in the debate.
“Regardless of who you support, this is refreshing to see in today’s climate,” he said.