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Sara Totonchi

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Commentary: Criminal justice reform in Georgia cannot end with Governor Deal

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When Nathan Deal moved into the Governor’s Mansion in 2011, he quickly made clear that reforming the state’s prohibitively expensive and ineffective criminal justice system was going to be the cornerstone of his administration. He spoke about the crushing financial expense the state would bear if it continued on its current sentencing trajectory and made a plea for humanity, stating “While we foresee this effort uncovering strategies that will save taxpayer dollars, we are first and foremost attacking the human costs of a society with too much crime, too many behind bars, too many children growing up without a much needed parent and too many wasted lives.”

Governor Deal kept his promise. In every legislative session since he took office, Georgia has passed responsible, smart criminal justice legislation that has both reduced the prison population and increased access to treatment and services for impacted communities. Under conservative Republican leadership—and in strong partnership with groups than span the political spectrum like the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation—the state has achieved myriad noteworthy successes.

We’ve seen nearly 30 percent reduction in the incarceration rate for black men; a 38.2 percent reduction for black women; a 24 percent drop in the recidivism rates for individuals who finish vocational training programs in jail; a 19 percent reduction in recidivism among incarcerated people who earn their GED; a 46 percent drop in commitments to the Department of Juvenile Justice. As of last year, Georgia’s prison population is nearly 12 percent smaller than was projected, and over $260 million taxpayer dollars have been diverted to evidence-based practices.

But now is not the time to rest.

Despite passing a host of smart reforms, Georgia is not immune to its past, nor is it deaf to the toxic—and sometimes contradictory—language coming out of the Trump Justice Department. Our state continues to utilize a system of punishment that is harsh and regressive, defined by its longtime embrace of “tough-on-crime” strategies like mandatory minimums, recidivist penalties, and the nation’s harshest and longest probation sentences.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited our state in July, he willfully ignored the strides that Georgia has made in its reforms, and, bewilderingly, advocated for the state to return to the failed policies that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and crumbled communities. Justice reform advocates have noted that his “tough on crime” rhetoric has emboldened some state lawmakers, prosecutors and law enforcement who propose draconian new laws.

The foundation has been laid, and now the task falls to the next governor of Georgia to continue to build on meaningful reforms to the state’s criminal justice system. Though both gubernatorial candidates have voiced support for Governor Deal’s criminal justice initiatives, the candidates’ platforms are quite different. Democrat Stacey Abrams emphasizes the need to decriminalize poverty and provide pathways toward restoration for formerly incarcerated people. She highlights reentry and transitional program expansion, juvenile justice reform, and effective community policing. Abrams also endorses taking steps to decriminalize marijuana and ending capital punishment.

Republican Brian Kemp’s platform is framed differently: his “Georgia First” agenda focuses on what he calls “public safety reform,” which includes allocating state funds towards a gang database, creating a statewide “gang strike team” that would help authorities combat gang violence, and creating a “criminal alien database” with the purpose of tracking unauthorized immigrants who have committed crimes and hastening their deportations.

The next governor must continue to advocate for a system that does not criminalize poverty or race and that does not seek to tear apart families; one that seeks to ensure zealous representation, fair trials, and dignified treatment for all. They must continue to strive for a system that builds communities up, not breaks them down.

On that front, there is cause for optimism: despite the Attorney General’s rhetoric, there is still strong national support for responsible criminal justice reforms. A Justice Action Network poll conducted by Robert Blizzard, a partner at the Republican-leaning Public Opinion Strategies, found that 76 percent of Americans surveyed remain in favor of criminal justice reform.

In an era of both mass incarceration and rampant, divisive partisanship, Georgia has become the standard bearer for bipartisan criminal justice reform. It is critically important that our state continues its work in reducing overreliance on correctional control through strong, evidence-based policy reforms. We will be safer, stronger, and better for it.

Sara Totonchi is the executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Marissa McCall Dodson is the public policy director at SCHR, responsible for developing and advocating for reforms to the criminal legal system.

The Southern Center for Human Rights is a nonprofit law firm that advocates for equality and dignity in the criminal justice system. In their own words: “The mission of SCHR is to end capital punishment, mass incarceration, and other criminal justice practices that are used to control the lives of poor people, people of color, and other marginalized groups in the Southern United States. This is done through death penalty representation, impact litigation, policy advocacy, and public education.”

Commentary: Why Georgia’s most important decision on Election Day isn’t Trump or Clinton

When Georgians head to the polls on November 8, they’ll be faced with more than just a top-of-the-ticket decision between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. At the very bottom of the ballot, Georgia voters have an opportunity to stop an incredibly harmful measure, proposed Constitutional Amendment Number 3, in its tracks—and, in the process, stand up for judicial integrity and accountability across the state.

The outcome of the vote on Amendment 3 will determine the survival of a little known, but critically important state entity known as the Judicial Qualifications Commission (the “JQC”). For more than four decades, the JQC has served as Georgia’s sole judicial watchdog, forcing judges who abuse their power to change their ways or resign from the bench. JQC investigations have uncovered racism, sexism, nepotism and criminal activity in the judiciary branch—and, in turn, the JQC has created a judiciary in Georgia that is fairer and more impartial.

Take, for example, the case of Brunswick Circuit Chief Judge Amanda Williams, who resigned from the judiciary in 2012 after the JQC brought formal charges against her for jailing defendants indefinitely without access to lawyers, displaying preferential treatment to relatives practicing in her court, using abusive and insulting language in court, and allowing her personal lawyer to appear before her. Her actions were profiled on an episode of This American Life that aired nationally. Williams is now under indictment for her actions on the bench for allegedly lying under oath about certain actions she took as a judge.

Currently, the JQC’s seven members are selected by the Supreme Court of Georgia and the State Bar, and the membership includes non-lawyer citizen members. However, if Amendment 3 is approved, the power to appoint a majority of members to the JQC would shift to the General Assembly, placing the agency under the thumb of partisan influences in the legislature and stripping it of its independence. In short, Amendment 3 is a blatant political power grab that seeks to politicize Georgia’s judiciary branch in a shocking and dangerous manner.

The backers of Amendment 3 say they are trying to solve an alleged problem—operational inefficiency within the JQC—that doesn’t even exist. The JQC has been functioning smoothly for many years, and has removed more than five dozen corrupt judges from the bench since 2007. Recently, the agency even won the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Weltner Award for its affirmation that Georgia courts must be open to the public. So why would our elected officials want to alter the makeup of the JQC considering the effective work being done?

The answer? Unfortunately, Amendment 3 reeks of revenge and retaliation. While most Georgia judges serve honorably, there are always a few bad apples in the bunch. Consider the case of former Griffin Circuit Superior Court Judge Johnnie Caldwell, Jr., who resigned from the bench amid a JQC investigation into allegations that he made rude, sexually suggestive comments to a female attorney. Caldwell promised that he would never run for judicial office again. Two years later, former judge Caldwell became a state Representative, and, in an effort to dismember the agency that brought his explicit behavior into public view, co-sponsored the legislation that placed Amendment 3 on the ballot.

Those championing the passage of Amendment 3 are banking on voters not understanding the intentionally vague, misleading language on the ballot. In a recent radio interview, a central figure behind the push to remake the JQC, State Representative Wendell Willard, remarked, “It’s like inside baseball . . . my expectation is probably two-thirds of people going in to cast their ballot will not even know that [Amendment 3] is on the ballot, and they’ll read down and look at it and say ‘well that sounds logical, a good thing to do,’ and hopefully approve it.”

These legislators are trying to pull a fast one on Georgia voters, and we can’t let it happen. They are attempting to trick Georgians who believe in a transparent and accountable judiciary into voting in favor of Amendment 3—a destructive measure that will ONLY benefit the political insiders seeking revenge for their corrupt cronies on the bench, and not regular Georgians like us.

On Election Day, don’t let the politicians fool you. When you cast your ballot on November 8, stand up for judicial integrity and a court system that is free from partisan influences and political abuses. Vote “no” on Amendment 3 and allow the JQC to continue its work that demonstrates that no one, not even judges, is above the law.

Sara Totonchi is the Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Brinkley Serkedakis is the Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia. Together they represent Georgians for Judicial Integrity, a group of concerned individuals and organizations who have come together to defeat Amendment 3 on November 8, 2016. Learn more at georgiajudges.org.

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