Governor of Georgia | 2018

Criminal justice reform a defining issue in governor’s race

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s gubernatorial race, has made criminal justice reform central to her unusually progressive campaign. She has laid out a detailed platform with the stated goals of decreasing incarceration and facilitating the re-entry of people released from prison. The first priority she lists is eliminating cash bail, which she calls a form of “wealth-based discrimination.” Other proposals include decriminalizing marijuana possession, increasing alternative-sentencing programs, and raising the age at which teenagers are treated as adults. This document also advocates “banning the box,” as in barring employers from asking about job applicants’ conviction history.

Even if an Abrams governorship coincided with continued Republican control of the legislature, recent history suggests that certain GOP lawmakers could be open to working with her on some of these goals. Under Republican Governor Nathan Deal, Georgia passed a series of reform bills that enhanced diversion programs, scaled back mandatory minimums, and required judges to consider a defendant’s finances when setting bail. (The city of Atlanta also adopted an ordinance this year that restricts the use of cash bail for some municipal and misdemeanor offenses.) These laws have contributed to a decline in Georgia’s incarceration rate, with the number of people entering prison in 2017 at its lowest since 2002.

Abrams faces Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, who benefited from President Trump’s endorsement to decisively win the Republican nomination on July 24. Much of Kemp’s campaign revolves around toughening law enforcement. He wishes to facilitate deportations and implement a new database to track immigrants, as well as pour money into increased anti-gang policing and prosecution. “Gang members” should “never see daylight again,” he wrote in one op-ed.

Abrams also frames expanding Medicaid and other public health policies as essential for re-entry and rehabilitation. Georgia has for now rejected the Medicaid expansion funds provided by the Affordable Care Act. This has contributed to the crisis that has hit the state’s hospitals, forcing closures and threatening low-income Georgians’ access to healthcare. Unlike Abrams, Kemp opposes expanding Medicaid and wants to create work requirements for existing recipients, an idea that has gained new life under the Trump administration. Work requirements are especially burdensome for people released from incarceration because of the obstacles to employment that they face, as Emma Sandoe, a Ph.D. candidate in health policy at Harvard, explained in February.

published Aug. 2, 2018 | Daniel Nichanian