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Opinion: Nathan Deal's true legacy as governor is in criminal justice reform
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Former Gov. Nathan Deal greets those gathered in a tent set up in front of the new Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, following the building dedication. - photo by Scott Rogers

At the end of an elected official’s tenure in office, there is often discussion about the “legacy’ left behind by the departing public servant.

When former governor Nathan Deal vacated the state’s top elective position at the end of 2018, a strong argument could have been made that Deal’s most significant contribution while in office was a rebuilding of the state’s economy and the strengthening of its business foundation, which were hallmarks of his eight years of service as governor.

But the former governor’s true legacy, the body of work for which he worked most passionately and successfully, was a revamping of Georgia’s judicial system to abandon punishment-heavy concepts of the past and replace them with more productive, efficient and streamlined judicial standards that will serve the state well for years to come.

In hindsight, it is remarkable what a sea change the governor was able to affect in how the state’s judicial system works in just eight years as its chief executive. While in office, Deal led a bipartisan effort to revamp concepts of crime and punishment, of justice and mercy, of rehabilitation and reformation.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

Included among the reforms were measures that today are helping to keep those convicted of lesser non-violent crimes out of prison while giving them opportunities to succeed in life despite prior criminal wrongdoing. “Accountability” courts implemented by Deal with legislative support gave judges broader leeway in sentencing, and allowed customization of criminal proceedings to specific types of crimes, such as DUIs and drug offenses.

The thresholds at which certain minor crimes were considered felonies were raised, and judges encouraged to use greater discretion in sentencing rather than heavy-handed mandates not always justifiable by the crime that had been committed.

A special state business court was established to handle complex business issues, such as contract disputes and security violations, allowing them to be removed from traditional courtrooms.

The judicial reform effort undertaken by Deal was sweeping, comprehensive and progressive. The end result has improved efficiency, saved money, reduced the numbers of prison inmates and changed lives by providing supervised second chances rather than excessively punitive time behind bars.

Considering that conservative law-and-order themes long on punishment and short on rehabilitation had been political mainstays in Georgia for decades, Deal’s ability to enact such sweeping judicial changes serve as testimony to his political skills and leadership abilities.

The reforms enacted under the guidance of the former governor have attracted positive attention nationwide, remarkable in itself given the state’s past penchant for locking people up.

The governor’s efforts were recognized Feb. 11 with the formal dedication of the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta, the new home for the state’s highest courts, including the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and the Business Court.

Of Deal, current governor Brian Kemp said, “His work fundamentally changed the way we view nonviolent offenders, winning support from both sides of the aisle, and it set a standard across our country.”

Kemp was one of many dignitaries on hand for the formal dedication of the new $131 million building, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who spoke at the dedication.

But despite all the star power on hand for the event, it was Deal who was the man of the hour, and rightfully so. A lawyer and former prosecutor, Deal used his knowledge of both the courts and politics to put his personal stamp on judicial changes from which the state is likely to benefit for generations to come.

While many of the reforms favored by the governor have been enacted, the fate of others will be determined by the decisions made by his successors in the governor’s office and legislators in office now and in the future.

Funding will have to be provided to continue rehabilitation programs to help those guilty of minor crimes transition into better lives. Training programs will have to be sustained and expanded. More accountability courts will be needed. Funding for public defenders will have to be found.

But the framework is there to preserve judicial reforms that have advanced the cause of justice dramatically in Georgia, thanks largely to the work of the former governor.

State Sen. Butch Miller of Gainesville, who worked closely with Deal in helping to gain approval for the many judicial reforms, put the effort into perspective.

“Generations to come will benefit from his vision, his insight and his compassion,” Miller said of the former governor and congressman.

Long after those now serving in state government are gone, the Nathan Deal Judicial Center will still be holding court. That is as it should be, the honor and recognition are well deserved.

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