Dear Fellow Georgians:
My younger brother Walter is brilliant, dynamic, and one of the kindest people I’ve ever known, but he suffers from mental health issues that went undiagnosed and untreated because my family lacked health insurance and access to services. Instead of getting help, Walter self-medicated, made bad choices to support his drug habit, and is now serving time in prison. He missed last Christmas with our family, with his daughter. He struggles every day with both his illness and his drug addiction. But Walter’s path could have been different with the right interventions.
Too many Georgians know Walter’s story all too well. The old way in Georgia said that mental health treatment wasn’t a smart investment for our state. The old way in Georgia ensured missteps and mistakes followed a person for life, impacting whether they could ever get a job or decent housing. The old way did not see a future in Georgia for men and women like Walter. In the last decade, a bipartisan consensus has emerged that our criminal justice system must head in a new direction. Republicans and Democrats realized Georgia could not continue to afford to be a leader in mass incarceration, which costs too much money and sets people up for permanent failure. Georgia has started on a path to a smarter approach—one the next governor must continue.
We cannot return to the tired, dated patterns of “punish and penalize.” In 2018, we must elect leadership with a bold new vision for what Georgia can be.
Leaders across the state know my commitment to criminal justice reform, and the Governor of Georgia has trusted me to sit at the table and work for common sense solutions. I served on the Special Joint Committee on Criminal Justice Reform, the Sentencing Subcommittee, Probation Reform Task Force, and the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians. During my tenure, I helped pass changes to reduce sentencing for non-violent offenders, shift Georgia’s policies on private probation, improve our parole system, adopt a new juvenile justice code and obtain eligibility for vocational licenses for ex-offenders. The Governor also appointed me to the Judicial Nominating Committee, where I advocated for true diversity representation in our courts and the appointment of innovative judges who have adopted smart-on-crime policies. I am committed to working collaboratively with the courts, state agencies, law enforcement, community-based partners, and the legislature to continue and expand criminal justice reform.
When elected as governor, I look forward to that first call with my brother—a call to share my joy with him and to say a prayer for him as he serves the remainder of his time. Part of what makes this campaign different is that my story is the story of Georgia, and I’m not afraid to tell it—the good and the bad. If we can be candid about the struggles in our families and our communities, then we can find real solutions.
The solutions in my Justice for Georgia Plan will decriminalize poverty and provide pathways to restoration for those who have committed crimes but want to do better. Right now, if you have money, you can artfully navigate the criminal justice system and maybe even avoid it altogether. But, if you are poor, you are often overwhelmed by the system. Right now, the majority of Georgians incarcerated in local jails have not been convicted of a crime. Many are simply too poor to pay their bail. The Constitution says that punishment is for the convicted, not the merely arrested, and Georgia must be on the right side of the law. The collateral consequences of our justice system have wide-ranging impacts, including loss of jobs, children sent into foster care, loss of housing and more people shifted from work to the social safety net. The entire community is affected, and everyone becomes less secure.
We spend too much money locking people up without proof this makes our communities safer or spends taxpayer dollars wisely. Instead of safety, we get higher unemployment and less community stability. Georgia cannot turn away from our progress, and we have much more to do. The cost to our families and our economy is too great. My vision is a Georgia built on fairness and where poverty is not a life sentence. In addition to working to end money bail for nonviolent offenses, I will focus on decriminalizing certain traffic offenses, limiting the forfeiture of drivers licenses for failure to pay fines, increasing fairness in the assessment and imposition of criminal justice debt, adequately funding indigent defense, improving access to community-based mental health and substance abuse programs and other solutions to ensure that incomes do not determine outcomes in the justice system.
My Justice for Georgia Plan addresses five key areas. Tackling each of these areas will improve court, jail, and prison systems, lower incarceration rates, reduce recidivism, aid law enforcement, and make our communities safer by building trust throughout Georgia.
- Decriminalization of poverty through eliminating money bail, improving pretrial services and supervision, increasing diversion programs and accountability courts (like veterans courts, drug courts, etc.), and providing for civil penalties rather than criminal penalties for certain traffic offenses and marijuana possession.
- Re-entry and transition program expansion through improving the coordination of services with state agencies like the Department of Corrections and the Department of Community Supervision, developing strong public-private partnerships with employers, housing providers and educational institutions and protecting people from unfair discrimination based on their criminal history.
- Juvenile justice reform through raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, the continuation of the Juvenile Justice Incentive Grant Program and other necessary improvements.
- Effective community policing through engagement with community members to proactively identify and address issues that impact the quality of life in neighborhoods and to further assist law enforcement in obtaining the resources—including training and data-driven solutions—they need to protect the communities in which they serve.
Criminal justice reform is one part of improving the safety and security for all Georgians. We must invest in prevention and early intervention through education, jobs, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and affordable housing. That’s why my campaign has and will continue to release plans for Medicaid expansion, jobs in all 159 counties, 0-4 early childhood programs and K-12 education and training opportunities, and other solutions to move Georgians from survival to success.
As governor, I will focus on the barriers facing Georgians who are trying to move ahead and move beyond their past. Our reforms will be data-driven and evidence-based, but also experience-based—we need to learn from the lived experience of families across this state to ensure more of our fellow Georgians can be part of our economy rather than part of our justice system.
Criminal justice reform is a central component of my mission to create effective and engaged government. Together, we will work to build a justice system that serves every Georgian—a critical way to make sure government works for everyone.
“After I served time, re-entry and transition services provided a lifeline that helped me thrive – and I believe every Georgian who leaves the system should be able to access the support they require to make sure they lead productive lives and avoid reoffending. Stacey Abrams’ Justice for Georgia Plan would reduce recidivism and make sure no Georgian continues to be unfairly punished after they served their sentence.”
Lindsey Sizemore, peer counselor
“During my time as a judge, I saw a critical need for criminal justice reform – including in the area of juvenile justice. Under Stacey Abrams’ leadership, Georgia would invest in evidence-based programs to keep children out of prison that address the root causes of incarceration, interrupt the school to prison pipeline, and make sure the poor are not unfairly penalized by our justice system.”
Velma Tilley, former Bartow County Judge
Where We Are
Georgians under Supervision:
Prison population = 51,700
Jail population = 41,750
Probation population = 432,235 (Highest rate in the nation)
Parole population = 24,130
Georgia has accomplished much during the Deal administration to reform our justice system. Both the adult and juvenile systems have undergone extensive reform. The results are striking. The prison population has declined. The number of African Americans sent to state prison has dropped by 30% in 8 years. The number of youth in secure confinement and secure detention fell 36% and 11%, respectively.
But more work needs to be done. Georgia jails are overburdened with pretrial detainees who are held only because they cannot afford to make bail. Too many convicted of nonviolent crimes are serving time in jail or prison rather than being able to stay in the community and access opportunities that will improve their lives. The money spent on holding pretrial detainees and those who could succeed on probation is better spent on pretrial and probation programs. Parole and Corrections programs require more resources and enhanced re-entry programs to reduce recidivism. Policy changes are also necessary regarding our treatment of young people as adults, which ignores well-documented research on brain development and diminishes their opportunity to become successful adults who can contribute to society. Finally, we must come together as a community, citizens and law enforcement, to face increased tensions, treat all with respect and dignity, and make our communities safe for everyone.
Criminal Justice Priorities
- Eliminating money or “cash bail”
- Fines, not jail time for small amounts of marijuana and certain traffic offenses
- Expanded accountability courts and diversion programs
- More extensive re-entry and transition programs
- Expansion of “Ban the Box”
- Continuation and expansion of juvenile justice reforms, including raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, expanding alternatives to detention, and expanding intervention programs.
- Support for community engagement and transparency initiatives for law enforcement
- Medicaid expansion for greater access to mental health and substance abuse treatment
A judge must consider two things when deciding to release a person from custody who is accused of a crime: Will that person return to court and is that person a danger to the community? If that person is a flight risk or a danger to the public, they will not be released. But, if the judge finds that the person will return to court and is not a danger, then pretrial release can be ordered. Pretrial release allows the person to return to their family and their job and saves the taxpayers the cost of incarceration. Unfortunately, many people cannot take advantage of pretrial release because they are poor. Most jurisdictions in Georgia simply impose a flat bail fee based on a schedule without determining the financial circumstances of a detainee. If a person in custody cannot pay that amount, then they stay in jail. A bail system that imposes financial conditions without considering a person’s ability to pay violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Keeping people in jail because they are poor is wealth-based discrimination. Further, it places an unnecessary burden on the community when jails are overcrowded with pretrial detainees who do not pose a flight risk or danger to the community.
Georgia will prioritize bail reform that keeps Georgians safe and treats everyone fairly by eliminating money bail or “cash bail.”
Decriminalization of Certain Traffic Violations
In the United States, each state decides which laws are civil and which are criminal. In Georgia, all traffic violations are criminal misdemeanors. Beginning in the 1970s, nearly half the states across the country declared that most traffic violations are civil. In those states, non-criminal traffic violations are punishable by fine only. More serious traffic violations, such as driving under the influence, vehicular homicide, excessive speeding and driving without or with a suspended license, remain criminal. In Georgia, since traffic offenses are generally misdemeanors, otherwise law-abiding citizens end up with criminal records and are needlessly tied up on criminal court dockets for minor traffic charges.
Georgia will join other states and move certain traffic violations into the civil arena, thereby freeing criminal courts to address crimes, not traffic violations. This will reduce jail populations and allow law enforcement agencies to redirect resources.
Decriminalize Marijuana Possession
Similar to traffic violations, too many people are ending up in the criminal justice system because of small amounts of marijuana. Possessing less than an ounce of marijuana in Georgia can mean up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Atlanta recently decriminalized marijuana by applying a maximum fine of $75 for small amounts and no longer mandating jail time.
Georgia will decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, meaning no jail time for possession of small amounts. Additionally, as Georgia has already allowed the use of cannabis oil, we support cannabis oil and medical marijuana cultivation and will address those recommendations in the upcoming health platform.
Pretrial Supervision, Diversion Programs and Accountability Courts
Georgia has made progress in alternative-sentencing, but can do more to ensure individuals receive the help they need and avoid records that will impact their ability to get jobs and housing for a lifetime.
Pretrial supervision allows individuals to be released before trial. Most counties in Georgia take advantage of this type of program. There are many innovative pretrial programs, and we will encourage more innovation. For example, in Kentucky, pretrial supervision uses various means of communication—a phone call, text message, or email—to remind defendants of their next court date. These court notification reminders are effective in assuring defendants will show up for their court dates.
Georgia will continue to enhance and expand pretrial services with the savings realized when jail populations are reduced.
In 2015, Georgia enacted accountability court divisions for drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans’ treatment courts. DUI courts and juvenile drug courts followed. These courts recognize many people find themselves involved in the criminal justice system due to psychological issues. Accountability courts address the serious issues defendants are facing while reducing crime. They can allow for dismissal of charges if the defendant completes rigorous requirements aimed at addressing substance abuse, mental health, or other challenges. Each jurisdiction may establish accountability courts, but it is not required. Consequently, while many drug courts have been established across the state, other types of accountability courts have not. Accountability courts in some urban and rural Georgia counties have evidence-based track records of success, and these courts should become the norm. These courts are a cost-effective criminal justice strategy. Incentivizing accountability courts and diversion programs will ensure that all of Georgia benefits from the broad use and proven success of these courts and programs.
Under an Abrams administration, Georgia will set guidelines and procedures to verify access, structure and consistency in these courts in every jurisdiction. No matter where you live in Georgia, we will work to ensure equality in the administration of justice.
Private Probation Companies
Justice should not be a profit-making enterprise, yet Georgia allows private companies to oversee probation for more than 100,000 Georgians. In fact, private probation companies covered 85% of courts and 80% of the misdemeanor probationers in 2014. Fees to these private companies—totaling millions of dollars annually—hit those who are already struggling the hardest, further linking poverty and our criminal justice system. Governor Deal and lawmakers made private probation less profitable in recent years, but we need to go further and end this practice.
Georgia will work to end private company oversight of probation and equalize funding to local governments to serve this public purpose.
Ban the Box
Banning the box removes questions about conviction history from job applications. Thus, employers consider a potential employee’s qualifications before his or her criminal record. In 2015, Governor Deal signed an Executive Order to “Ban the Box” for state government. Georgia was the first Southern state to do so. Across the nation more than 150 cities and counties have adopted “ban the box.” Giving the opportunity for employment to those with criminal histories reduces recidivism and keeps our communities safer. Those who are released from prison and cannot find a job are more likely to commit crime and end up back in prison.
We will introduce legislation for “ban the box” to apply to local governments and private employers.
Re-entry and Transition Programs
Re-entry into communities is often a very difficult transition for those who have served time in jail or prison, or for homeless offenders. We can decrease the rate of recidivism by strengthening self-help programs for inmates, coordinating and expanding evidence-based parenting programs, investing in community probation supervision, expanding access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, and incentivizing employers to hire people with a criminal conviction. There are a number of programs offered throughout Georgia by state, local, and private agencies that offer opportunities to scale efforts. The Council for Accountability Court Judges of Georgia partnered with the Department of Community Supervision, the Department of Community Affairs, and the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) to support the Re-entry Partnership Housing Program. Those who are active participants in an accountability court or who remain in prison due to a lack of housing options are eligible for housing. The Georgia DOC offers reentry programs through the Transitional Services initiatives, including Faith and Character Based Programs and assistance for veterans. The Department of Community Supervision administers the Georgia Prisoner Re-entry Initiative (GA-PRI) to provide services and supervision in collaboration with local communities. Local re-entry projects are available in some communities, such as the Cobb County Re-Entry Project, Inc. and Gwinnett Re-entry Intervention Program and organizations like the Georgia Justice Project that help people correct, seal and expunge criminal records.
We must scale re-entry efforts beyond the pilot sites and have a robust, regional infrastructure to aid these Georgians in transitioning back into communities.
Expand Medicaid to Fight Crime
New studies find that Medicaid expansion decreases crime rates. Nationally, more than half of people in jail or prison struggle with mental health or substance abuse challenges. When individuals receive Medicaid and can finally access mental health and substance abuse treatment in their communities, crime rates drop. Stacey Abrams has led the fight for Medicaid expansion—a vital investment in public health and public safety.
Abrams has made Medicaid expansion the Day One priority as governor.
When we deinstitutionalized our mental health population in Georgia, we failed to provide adequate community services to meet their needs. As a result, we have shifted their care onto our public safety officers, our teachers, our librarians, and others. We need to let these professionals focus on their core responsibilities rather than work that we’ve been shifting onto them from other systems.
To meet these mental health challenges and divert people suffering from mental illnesses from our jails, we must expand Medicaid. A report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that people who accessed Medicaid were more likely to have their behavioral health needs met. These individuals were 30% more likely to receive treatment if they enrolled in Medicaid. They estimated that 159,000 uninsured Georgians who are in that coverage gap suffer from mental illness or substance abuse challenges. Meeting their needs through Medicaid would mean our state funds for behavioral health could focus on prevention and early intervention, while our public safety community could focus on keeping our communities safe.
Juvenile Justice Reforms
Diverting troubled youth at an early age can prevent their entrance into the juvenile justice system. A strong investment in prevention and early intervention programs, particularly for at risk youth in underserved communities, makes kids and communities safer. Responsibility can be shared by state and local governments, school systems, law enforcement and juvenile courts. Georgia will:
- Invest in evidence-based community alternatives to commitment and youth development programs for at-risk youth. Evidence-based programs reduce recidivism and promote positive relationships. The Juvenile Justice Incentive Grant Program is an effective means to reinvest savings from reduction of use of out-of-home placement (i.e., secure and non-secure detention) into evidence-based community alternatives to detention. Currently, the Incentive Grant Program reaches 34 counties, which are home to 62% of Georgia’s at-risk youth. We must expand to serve all youth who need these services in all parts of the state.
- Continue the use of risk-based assessments for all youth in the system to ensure that our youth are treated as youngsters with developing brains. Ensure that objective assessment instruments are used to guide decision-making regarding the use of detention and the risks and needs of juvenile offenders.
- Enhance mental health treatment. Juveniles diagnosed with mental health issues must be provided appropriate treatment and proper placement ensuring their safety and community safety. Our communities will be safer when children receive the rehabilitative services they need to remain in the community.
- Ensure procedural protections for court-involved youth (e.g., right to counsel).
- Ensure release from a juvenile facility is contingent on good behavior and substantial completion of programs. Supervised release programs for each youth must be both realistic and enforceable.
- Raise the age that youth are treated as adults to 18. Georgia is one of only 5 states that continues to consider all 17 year olds as adults. Treating every 17 year old as an adult regardless of the level of their alleged crime ignores adolescent brain development research and proven research that youth are more amenable to rehabilitation than any other group of offenders.
Community Policing and Law Enforcement Policies
Trust between communities and law enforcement is essential. Two important reforms—community-oriented policing and transparent law enforcement policies—can foster trust and build the relationships that make our communities safer.
Some law enforcement agencies in Georgia have affirmed a community-oriented policing philosophy that recognizes the need for strong relationships with communities, as well as proactive problem solving to prevent crimes. Atlanta’s Community Oriented Policing Section (COPS) involves units dedicated to building community partnerships, including the Police Athletic Club and Atlanta Police Explorers Program to connect with youth, the Homeless Outreach Proactive Enforcement team, Hispanic and LGBTQ liaison units, Crime Prevention Unit, and the Path Force Unit to patrol the Atlanta Beltline and surrounding areas seven days a week. Other areas—Brunswick, Johns Creek, and Riverdale, to name a few—have also recognized the value of community-oriented policing. These programs are commendable. We will encourage similar programs in Georgia’s cities and counties through coordinated listening sessions between law enforcement and communities, as well as grants for training. We will support the new trainings offered by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center on de-escalation, use-of-force, cultural awareness, and community relations and work to ensure they have appropriate, evidence-based curriculum.
Additionally, we will support transparency initiatives to ensure law enforcement policies are clearly defined for the public and data-driven solutions aid in public safety. Each law enforcement agency should have clearly written policies on use of deadly force and standard operating procedures. We will encourage efforts to spread model language from the Georgia Law Enforcement Certification program. Finally, we will recommend that law enforcement agencies throughout Georgia participate in the “Use of Force Data Collection Program” to ensure transparency.
Abrams’ Leadership on Public Safety and Justice
Stacey Abrams co-sponsored the legislation to create the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform in 2011, and she has since served on the Council and various subcommittees created by Governor Deal. The council’s efforts included a “ban the box” recommendation later adopted by the state, as well as several juvenile justice reform measures. Abrams also served on the Parole and Probations Committee and the Juvenile Justice Committee. During her eleven years on the House Judiciary Non-Civil committee, she fought against legislation to increase penalties for juvenile defendants and helped negotiate several bills to improve the balance of criminal justice and public safety. In the 2015-2016 session, she co-sponsored a reform bill to clarify protections for the elderly and the disabled when facing trial and a bill to raise the age of what it means to be treated as an adult in the Georgia justice system. She also successfully amended legislation in order to place restrictions on private probation and helped secure a veto of the faulty legislation, which lead to wide-scale private probation reform. In 2016, she secured a provision in the omnibus criminal justice bill that allows ex-offenders to qualify for professional licenses. In 2016, she helped lead bipartisan efforts to hold officers who shoot and kill on duty more accountable during the grand jury process. In 2017, she served on the Parole and Probations Committee, whose work was adopted in SB 174.