The Right Way? As Prisons Squeeze Budgets, GOP Rethinks Crime Focus

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Weeks after his election as Georgia governor in 2010, Nathan Deal was pulled aside by a conservative state lawmaker with urgent business to discuss.

Rep. Jay Neal, a small-town pastor, said he had the seeds of a plan to cut Georgia’s swelling prison population, which was costing taxpayers over $1 billion a year. The governor-elect didn’t let Mr. Neal get far.

“The minute I mentioned what I wanted to do, he jumped in with what he wanted to do,” Mr. Neal recalled. “And it turns out we were talking about the same thing.”

That pairing of a pastor with a former prosecutor, both Republicans, helped pave the way for dramatic revamping of Georgia’s criminal code. New rules enacted over the past two legislative sessions are steering nonviolent offenders away from prison, emphasizing rehabilitation over jail time, and lessening the penalties for many drug and property crimes.

Georgia is the latest example of a Republican-led state drive to replace tough-on-crime dictums of the 1990s with a more forgiving and nuanced set of laws. Leading the charge in states such as Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina and South Dakota are GOP lawmakers — and in most cases Republican governors — who once favored stiff prison terms aimed at driving down crime.

Motivations for the push are many. Budget pressures and burgeoning prison costs have spurred new thinking. Some advocates point to data showing that harsh prison sentences often engender more crime. Among the key backers are conservative Christians talking of redemption and libertarians who have come to see the prison system as the embodiment of a heavy-handed state. And crime rates are falling nationally, a trend that has continued in most of the states putting fewer people in jail.

The movement also dovetails with the quest of some Republicans to soften the party’s edges and to plunge into new policy areas that affect the poor and the disadvantaged. The initiatives have drawn praise from groups that aren’t often allied with the GOP, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. The result is some unlikely bedfellows, with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council working alongside the ACLU.  READ MORE >>>

June 21, 2013

By Neil King Jr. The Wall Street Journal (Copyright (c) 2013, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.) [Part of a series]