By Bill Rankin
The number of African-Americans being locked up in Georgia’s prison system has dropped to historic lows, reflecting a monumental shift in the way Georgia is punishing nonviolent offenders.
While prison admissions have dropped almost 19 percent in the past eight years, the incarceration of black inmates fell by 30 percent. And the number of black inmates entering the prison system last year was at its lowest level in decades, Department of Corrections records show.
Georgia has long been condemned for its mass incarceration of African-Americans — a decades-long procession of young black men into prison that has decimated communities across the state. The great imbalance still exists: black people make up nearly a third of Georgia’s population and nearly two-thirds of its prison population. But those numbers are turning around. In 2009, the peak year of prison admissions, African-Americans accounted for 61 percent of new inmates. Last year, the proportion was 52 percent.
The imprisonment of tens of thousands of African-Americans has “hollowed out neighborhoods of parents and employable men,” said James Forman Jr., author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” “It’s just been devastating.”
Forman, a Yale law professor who grew up in Atlanta, said he is heartened by the trends in prison admissions. “People are finding out there are more economically efficient and morally compassionate alternatives to prison,” he said.
In decades past, most people argued that reducing the prison population would simply free more criminals to commit more crimes, said Forman. “Now that both the crime rate and prison numbers are going down at the same time, maybe more people will be open to considering even more aggressive reforms because that argument was taken away.”
Bridgette Lee Fulton, 49 and a grandmother, was among hundreds of drug offenders who didn’t go to prison in 2015. She completed the 18-month program in Fulton County’s “drug court” and is now clean and attending college classes in pursuit of a social work degree. She once served as a drug mule, strapping narcotics to her body before taking flights to deliver the drugs to dealers in the northeast. She racked up conviction after conviction over the years in her efforts to support her drug addiction.
“I came to realize getting high was a job,” Fulton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s so much easier to get clean and sober. There’s no more anxiety about the police. Your bills are being paid.”
Later in the interview, she paused briefly and added: “And grandmothers don’t go out and commit crimes. I’ve had enough of that.”
State’s reforms are getting results
Three things have caused much of the drop in the number of people sent to prison in Georgia. First, the crime rate is down. Second, the state has expanded “accountability courts” — like the drug court attended by Bridgette Lee Fulton — as an alternative to prison. And third, the state has altered the definition of “felony” for burglary, theft and shoplifting. Previously, anyone stealing more than $500 in goods or cash was charged with a felony; that threshold is now $1,500.
“From a national vantage point, Georgia continues to set a very high bar for other states in both the approach it’s taken and the results it’s getting,” said Adam Gelb, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project. “What’s happening here resonates loudly in capitals across the country where people understand the significance of a large, conservative Southern state making such aggressive and comprehensive reforms.”
The man behind the dramatic reforms is Gov. Nathan Deal, who set the process in motion in 2011. At the outset, Georgia’s prison population was projected to increase by 8 percent — to about 60,000 inmates — in just five years, at an additional cost of $264 million. Instead, the prison population has actually declined, to about 52,000 today, saving tens of millions of tax dollars.
“The results have been far more successful than I or anyone else could have ever contemplated,” Deal told the AJC. “And we have shown we can make these reforms without jeopardizing public safety.”
As for the drop in the number of blacks being sent to prison, Deal said, “I think it is good we have hit on some things that were perhaps disproportionately affecting the African-American community.”
‘Does he have a job? Will he be around?’
Mass incarceration has devastated black families for decades.
Sarah Shannon, a University of Georgia sociology professor who focuses on criminal justice and public welfare, says the new trends could lead to profound change — including in the marriage market in many African-American communities.
“If I’m a stereotypical woman and I’m looking for a man to partner with, I’ll wonder: ‘Does he have a job? Can he get one? Will he be around?’ This affects who’s available to build a family with, not to mention child care and child-rearing,” Shannon said.
Deal’s criminal justice reform council is now in what is supposed to be its eighth and final year. The Legislature, with overwhelming bipartisan support, has adopted most of the recommendations made by a justice reform council of judges, court officials, lawyers and members of law enforcement.
As the council continues to collect prison admissions and sentencing data, it has also found:
Since 2009, the number of white offenders sent to state prison has increased by almost 7 percent, which experts say is attributable to the opioid crisis. Just as the crack epidemic was concentrated among black users, the opioid epidemic is taking its largest toll among whites.
Last year, 17,616 people were sent to state prison, the lowest number since 2002.
The number of African-American women entering state lockups each year has declined 38 percent since 2009.
A decade ago, nonviolent offenders comprised 40 percent of the prison population; last year, they made up 32 percent of the population.
While increasing numbers of nonviolent offenders are avoiding prison, more violent offenders are being locked up — an increase of 5 percent over the past five years, Corrections Commissioner Greg Dozier said. That’s about 2,600 potentially dangerous inmates, more than enough to fill up two prisons.
“This is creating new challenges for our correctional officers,” he said. “But, first and foremost, the increasing percentage of violent offenders is really one of the most prevalent stats that show criminal justice reform is working.”
Arrested 38 times, he’s finally clean and sober
Georgia’s initial push for criminal justice reform included a wholesale expansion of accountability courts, which divert offenders with substance abuse and mental health problems from prison provided they get a job, stay clean and get treatment. The court programs typically last about 18 months and include frequent drug tests and individual and group counseling. The court dismisses charges against offenders who graduate.
Mack Cook III had been arrested 38 times and spent time in state prison before being admitted to Fulton County’s drug court in July 2015. At the time, he faced prison time for selling crack to an undercover officer.
Cook, 45, said he started drinking as a 12-year-old growing up in west Atlanta. It wasn’t long before he moved on to taking all kinds of narcotics, with crack cocaine his drug of choice. This led to repeated stints in metro jails and living under a bridge.
“I was never making my own decisions,” Cook, who now washes dishes at a Midtown restaurant, said recently. “What the drugs told me to do, I did.”
Whenever he was released from custody, Cook said, he would soon find himself back in the same situation. But the drug court run by Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney provided the structure he needed to succeed, Cook said.
Cook graduated last April, wearing a cap and gown for the first time in his life. “In my heart, I truly believe I’d be dead now if it wasn’t for drug court,” he said.
Cook, who’s been clean for more than 2½ years, often returns to drug court to try to be a mentor to new members. “My purpose now is to help someone else,” he said.
At the outset of Georgia’s reform efforts, there were 12 state-funded accountability courts that took in drug users, drunk drivers, the mentally ill and veterans, the governor told legislators during his recent State of the State address. Now, there are 149 all across the state.
‘Things that make a difference’
Deal would like to see more of these courts with even more people having access to them.
“You have drug counselors who, from a scientific point of view, try to get to the root of the problem that got them into trouble in the first place,” the governor said. “Those are the kinds of things that make a difference in the life of that individual, and they make a difference in the life of the family of that individual. Quite frankly, they make a difference in the lives of all of us.”
State Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs, who has co-chaired Deal’s reform council since its inception, said he’s pleased with what’s been accomplished so far.
“By any reasonable measure, our efforts in correcting inequities within our criminal justice system over the past several years have proven to be an enormous success,” Boggs said. “But I certainly don’t think it’s time for us to raise the ‘mission accomplished’ banner yet. Despite all we’ve been able to accomplish, much more work needs to be done.”