Deal-led group urges federal prison reform, releases report

Former Gov. Nathan Deal speaks at a dedication ceremony for the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta on Feb. 11, 2020. (State of Georgia)

A criminal justice group led by former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal released several recommendations Wednesday on sentencing and quality-of-life reforms for federal prison inmates.

Outlined in a report from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Council on Criminal Justice, the recommendations call for broad changes to the U.S. judicial and penitentiary system. They range from eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes and creating a federal waiver for states with legal cannabis to increasing grant funds for prisoner education and expanding Medicaid coverage for substance-abuse treatment.

The report was drafted by a group of criminal justice experts chaired by Deal, who served two terms as governor starting in 2011. They include a former Philadelphia mayor, former Washington, D.C., police chief, former Massachusetts U.S. attorney, a former prisoner and Sally Yates, the Atlanta-based attorney who served as U.S. deputy attorney general in the Obama administration.

In the report, Deal wrote the group’s work started soon after President Donald Trump signed prison-reform legislation in 2018. It consisted of members from different political stripes who “did not see eye to eye on everything” but settled on “bold recommendations that are also pragmatic and hold potential to have the most substantial impact on Americans,” Deal wrote.

“The harsh political rhetoric of the past has softened, replaced by possibilities for progress on an issue that once was so divisive,” Deal said. “Reform won’t be easy, but we can and must use this pivotal moment in time to work for a more fair and effective federal system that provides safety and justice for all.”

Deal’s tenure as governor saw passage of several initiatives aimed at deterring crime rather than punishing it, including creation of Georgia’s accountability courts. In an effort to curb recidivism, those courts provide alternative sentences outside prison to help employ thousands of Georgia inmates with mental illness or substance-abuse issues.

Like other state-funded programs, accountability courts are facing deep budget cuts spurred by the economic slowdown of the coronavirus pandemic. The extent of those cuts and others will be decided next month when the General Assembly reconvenes to pass the 2021 fiscal year budget.

COVID-19 budget cuts deep for alternative sentencing programs in Georgia

Sen. Butch Miller (left) and Sen. John Alberts (right) talk budget cuts at a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee on May 27, 2020. (Georgia Senate video)

Nearly 2,000 Georgia criminal offenders enrolled in programs that let them work jobs and finish their sentences outside prison could be headed back behind bars due to budget cuts prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers learned Wednesday.

Roughly $4.3 million would be cut from the state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s budget for local grants to accountability courts, a popular program created by then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2013 offering alternative sentences to curb recidivism for thousands of Georgia inmates with mental illness or substance-abuse issues.

If implemented, the cuts would likely cause around 1,900 current participants in accountability courts across the state to return to local jails or prisons to complete their sentences, said Hall County Superior Court Chief Judge Kathlene Gosselin, who chairs the state Council of Accountability Court Judges.

Many of those participants are employed in restaurants, poultry plants and elsewhere and have continued working throughout the coronavirus pandemic, kept track of by program supervisors who are routinely informed of their progress via Zoom video meetings, Gosselin told state lawmakers Wednesday.

“Those people will likely end up either in local jails or prisons if they do not have an opportunity to do this,” Gosselin said at a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee.

In all, Gosselin said between eight and 12 of the alternative-sentencing programs would likely need to be shelved over lack of funding from the budget cuts. Local judicial circuits that receive grant funding for the programs would have to decide whether they can still maintain them with less money, she said.

Gosselin’s assessment came amid two weeks of General Assembly hearings on 14% spending cuts agencies across state government are being asked to make to offset the loss of tax revenues brought on by the pandemic-induced business lockdown.

Dozens of state agencies submitted proposals last week for budget reductions totaling about $3.5 billion for the 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The proposals were requested by top budget-writing lawmakers in the General Assembly, who are poised to make passing the budget the top priority once the legislature reconvenes next month.

If passed as is, the 14% cuts would translate to furloughs and layoffs for teachers, social workers, prosecutors and more, according to a review of agency proposals released last week. That would help close Georgia’s expected $3 billion to $4 billion tax revenue shortfall, though critics have called for raising revenues rather than spending cuts.

A hallmark of state criminal justice reforms, the alternative-sentence accountability courts saw roughly 12,400 participants enrolled in 163 courts statewide last year, of which 9,440 were still enrolled at the start of 2020, according to the council.

The state pocketed roughly $38.2 million in fiscal 2017 from more than 1,700 graduates of the program who both saved the state money in reduced prison costs and paid state income taxes, according to a study from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said Wednesday “painful cuts” to programs like accountability courts that aim to reduce overall prison costs are counterproductive.

“We all understand the concept that it costs us more tomorrow when we don’t spend it today,” Miller said. “The pot’s only so big and we’ve got to cut the slices.”

Lawmakers also got an overview Wednesday of proposed cuts for public-safety agencies overseeing prisons, state troopers, state investigators, parolees and juvenile offenders.

Several agencies like the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Community Supervision and the Department of Public Safety are facing furlough days for staff. Others like the Department of Corrections have proposed closing certain facilities, including Autry State Prison in Pelham. Shutting down the South Georgia prison would save nearly $18 million, officials say.

Sen. John Albers, who chairs the subcommittee, said he wants lawmakers to focus next month on finding ways to help agencies reduce the need for furloughs. That would involve looking at whether some of the state’s lucrative tax credits and incentives could be reined in to free up more revenue for agency spending, Albers said.

“I hope that we can work very diligently in order to get folks back to full-time work,” said Albers, R-Roswell. “I think we have several ways to do that.”

Northwest Georgia lands Chinese flooring company jobs, U.S. headquarters

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – A Chinese flooring company will open its first U.S. headquarters and manufacturing plant in Northwest Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday.

Huali Floors will create at least 315 jobs with an investment of $27 million at a site in Murray County.

The company is a leading manufacturer of resilient flooring, a middle ground between carpeting and hardwood or stone. Its products include vinyl tiles and stone-plastic and wood-plastic composite flooring.

“It’s a testament to Georgia’s logistics network and readily available workforce when an innovative company like Huali Floors chooses Georgia to establish their first U.S. manufacturing operations,” Kemp said. “I am confident Huali will find success in the Peach State.”

Philip Yuan, president of Huali Group, cited Northwest Georgia’s reputation as a flooring manufacturing center in the company’s decision to locate in the region. Georgia was the nation’s No.-1 exporter of floor covering products last year, with a total export value of $485.4 million.

“We want to be part of that spirit,” Yuan said. “We saw and felt the strength of the community throughout the project process.”

Huali Floors employs more than 2,000 full-time workers, with annual revenue exceeding $360 million. The company uses the Port of Savannah and plans to ship its products to the coast by rail from the Appalachian Regional Port near Chatsworth.

Jobs at the new headquarters and plant will involve administration, manufacturing and research and development. Individuals interested in employment opportunities should click on

The Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Global Commerce Division worked on the project in partnership with the state Department of Labor’s Quick Start program, the Georgia Ports Authority, the Murray County Industrial Development Authority, Georgia EMC and Georgia Power Co.

Georgia business groups endorse hate-crimes bill

Georgia Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, sponsored a hate-crimes bill the state House of Representatives passed last year.

Two business organizations with major political clout under the Gold Dome are asking the General Assembly to pass a hate-crimes bill when lawmakers return to the Capitol next month.

The heads of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and Metro Atlanta Chamber issued a joint statement Wednesday praising last year’s bipartisan passage in the state House of Representatives of legislation sponsored by Georgia Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, and urging the Georgia Senate to follow suit.

“Recent support from statewide leaders further demonstrates that momentum is growing for Georgia to join the 45 other states that already have these laws on the books,” wrote Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, and Hala Moddelmog, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

“When the Georgia General Assembly reconvenes in June, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber urge swift passage of hate crimes legislation that aligns our state’s laws with our values.” 

The statewide momentum for the hate-crimes bill the two chamber leaders cite stems from the widespread outrage following the arrests of a father and son in Glynn County earlier this month in the February shooting death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging in their neighborhood. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation made a third arrest in the case last week.

The two chambers of commerce have helped lead the opposition in recent years to legislative attempts to pass a religious liberty bill in Georgia, arguing it would hurt Georgia’s image as a business-friendly state by fostering same-sex discrimination. Business leaders praised then-Gov. Nathan Deal for vetoing religious liberty legislation that made it through the General Assembly in 2016.

House Bill 426 cleared the House of Representatives last year 96-64, primarily supported by Democrats but with some Republican support, including Efstration and GOP cosponsors Ron Stephens of Savannah and Deborah Silcox of Sandy Springs.

The bill allows additional penalties for criminal defendants if it is determined the victim was selected based on his or her “race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.”

FAA announces new timetable for Spaceport Camden

ATLANTA – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has revised its review schedule for a planned commercial spaceport in southeastern Georgia that will take the process into the fall of next year.

The delayed timetable for Spaceport Camden is to allow additional time to revise an environmental impact study (EIS) to take into account a significant change in the design of the project.

Officials in Camden County submitted a revised license application to the FAA in January that calls for launching only small rockets from the site rather than the medium-to-large rockets envisioned in the original plan.

Conservation and environmental groups opposed to the spaceport sent a letter in February asking the FAA to order the revised EIS.

“The county’s decision to focus on risky, unproven small rockets requires a thorough environmental review and the opportunity for public input,” Brian Gist, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Wednesday. “Camden County should recognize that this is the wrong place for a spaceport.”

Homeowners on nearby Little Cumberland Island have joined environmental critics in opposing the proposed spaceport as a threat to public safety.

Officials with the National Park Service have warned the spaceport could disrupt tourism at the popular Cumberland Island National Seashore, while the Defense Department has raised concerns over the proposed launch site’s proximity to the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base.

The project’s backers have countered that a commercial spaceport would represent a huge economic boost for southeastern Georgia and attract aerospace engineering graduates from Georgia Tech who otherwise likely would take their skills and earning power out of state. The project has been endorsed by Gov. Brian Kemp and the state’s congressional delegation.

The FAA estimates a decision on whether to green light the spaceport won’t come until October 2021.