Deal’s Criminal Justice Reform Legacy And The Ga. Governor’s Race

Democrat Stacey Abrams, left, and Republican Brian Kemp, right, have both praised the criminal justice reforms by Gov. Nathan Deal, center. Abrams and Kemp have also stated their own criminal justice goals as they compete to be Georgia’s next governor.

Associated Press file photos

On the campaign trail, both major party candidates for Georgia governor have praised Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reforms. But, while Democrat Stacey Abrams wants to continue and expand on his policies, Republican Brian Kemp is focused on other issues.

Deal’s criminal justice policies have prioritized keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison and lowering the rate of repeat offenders, and they’ve been a hallmark of his administration.

“Nathan Deal has done more for criminal justice reform than any governor in my recent memory,” said Abrams at a town hall in Dalton last month. “Georgia used to have the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. We’re now down to No. 9.”

She said Georgia now needs to build on Deal’s work and go further. Accountability courts, for example, aim to keep people with mental illnesses and addictions out of prison. Their expansion has been one of his major criminal justice accomplishments, and Abrams wants to add even more.

She also has said she wants to expand “ban the box” initiatives, which remove the question about a criminal record from employment applications. Deal signed such an executive order in 2015 regarding all state employment applications.

How does Kemp plan to continue Deal’s legacy? He has said he wants to build off of what Deal and his predecessor Sonny Purdue have done, economically and with criminal justice reform.

“To me the next step is public safety reform, kind of building off the good things he and the Legislature has done in a bipartisan way on criminal justice reform and now go after the problems that are out there that I’ve been hearing about on the ground. And that is exactly what I’m going to do,” he said at a public safety press conference last week. “We have got bipartisan support.”

To Kemp, big problems and his public safety platform are gangs and “criminal illegal immigrants.” “My goal as governor is to run [gangs] out of our state, to another state, and let them deal with them,” he said.

“When I look at Secretary Kemp’s website, his discussion of issues related to policing and crime focuses on undocumented immigrants and it focuses on gangs,” said Andra Gillespie, political science professor at Emory University. “And so in my estimation, that is a crime platform, that’s not a criminal justice platform.”

That contrasts with Abrams, she said, who appears to consider criminal justice issues a “core part of her campaign.”

“[Abrams] is trying to make the appeal to centrist voters who perhaps are sensitive to or sympathetic to Gov. Deal’s efforts to say that she’s actually more akin to Gov. Deal than say Brian Kemp is,” she said. “And to the extent that she’s actually talking about those issues on her website, which she is, you could see some of the similarities.”

There are differences, too, Gillespie qualified. Abrams is pushing some issues Deal has opposed, like decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and ending cash bail. Deal has been in favor of giving localities the ability to do so.

Deal has said just addressing gangs isn’t enough.

“I know a lot of discussion is going on now about gang activity. That is certainly one that we should be concerned about. But we can’t ignore the fact that if a young woman or a young man does not graduate from high school, the future of their success in life is greatly, greatly diminished,” he said at an Atlanta Press Club event last week.

However, Gillespie points out, Kemp’s position is probably not an accident, given that he didn’t run as the “heir apparent” in the primary.

“I think he meant to distinguish himself from Gov. Deal when he ran for office,” she said.

Abrams does not mention gangs in her criminal justice platform.