Ever since Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, he has been confronted with a countermovement called “the resistance.”
This resistance is comprised of Democrats who oppose Trump’s actions as president. They have conducted mass marches to protest the president’s policies, town halls to push back against attempts to kill Obamacare and energetic campaigns in special elections like in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
There is one area where the resistance has included not only dissident Democrats but the highest-ranking Republican in state government: Gov. Nathan Deal.
This is indeed ironic when you remember that Deal supported Trump in last fall’s election. But on the issue of criminal justice reform, Deal has refused to go along with Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Sessions has instructed all federal prosecutors to reverse the efforts of the Obama administration to reduce the number of low-level drug offenders in federal prisons. The feds will now go for the maximum charge possible on every criminal defendant, with the goal being to pack as many people as possible into prison cells.
The Sessions approach is a revival of the war on drugs of the 1980s and other “lock-them-up” programs that bloated prison rolls everywhere and caused correctional budgets to skyrocket.
Why are Trump and Sessions doing this? To find the answer, you must follow the money.
Two of the largest private prison operators in the country, GEO Group and CoreCivic, each donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund. GEO Group also contributed $225,000 to a super PAC Trump operates and hired two of Sessions’ former aides as federal lobbyists.
Sessions has financial investments in those private prison companies as well. The more people that federal prosecutors send to prison, the more money these private prison companies can potentially make — and the more value Sessions’ investments have.
From the very beginning of his administration, Deal has taken a different approach. In his first inaugural address in 2011, Deal said the state just could not afford to keep locking up so many drug addicts in prison.
“It is draining our state treasury and depleting our workforce,” Deal said.
He appointed a top-level criminal justice reform commission that recommended several changes in the state’s sentencing laws to divert nonviolent offenders to programs that provided an alternative to prison. These recommendations became legislation that was approved by Republicans and Democrats alike and signed into law by the governor.
Thanks to these revisions, the corrections department says that 67 percent of the state’s prison beds are now occupied by the most serious offenders, up from 58 percent in 2009.
Georgia now has 139 accountability courts, which are an alternative to imprisonment, and the number of new participants entering these courts statewide increased by 147 percent in 2016 alone.
Felony drug courts had 2,381 active participants, many of whom are struggling with substance abuse and would probably be in a state prison if not for the option of this alternative court.
It was once projected that Georgia would have 60,000 people behind bars by now; the number instead is about 52,000.
Even as Sessions was drafting his order for federal prosecutors to resume packing the prisons, Deal was signing the latest round of criminal justice bills passed during this year’s legislative session. These included some additional revisions in the state’s probation system.
“This most recent legislative package is another meaningful step forward in making Georgia a safer, more prosperous place to call home,” Deal said upon signing the bills.
“The unprecedented criminal justice reforms we’ve implemented since 2009 have already had a remarkable and positive impact, with overall prison commitments down 15.4 percent through the end of 2016,” he added.
Deal is not the only high-ranking official with this point of view. There are more than 30 states, including such red states as Texas and South Carolina, that are also trying to reduce incarceration rates by giving judges more alternatives to mandatory minimums and enacting more alternatives to prison sentences.
Deal would no doubt disagree sharply with any attempt to categorize him as part of the “resistance” to a president whose election he backed.
But on this one, he and officials in dozens of other states have made it clear that they are resisting the Trump administration.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.