Georgia has a “huge problem of addiction,” and simply putting people in prisons is not going to solve it, Gov. Nathan Deal said during his swing through the midstate Thursday.
Deal, who in May appointed his new Criminal Justice Reform Commission, suggested that major changes are needed in the state’s court system.
“We’re incarcerating far too high a percentage of our population, and the problem is that has been the only answer we’ve had,” the governor told a group of community leaders at the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.
The commission, he said, is meeting now to come up with recommendations “to change this pattern.”
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“It’s not going to be done easily and quickly, but it is something we’ve got to make a concerted effort to try to do. It’s expensive for the public community. It’s expensive in terms of lives in the private sector.”
Thursday morning, Deal visited Robins Air Force Base and held an economic development roundtable at Macon State College, where he also was guest at the chamber’s board meeting. He was in his hometown of Sandersville on Wednesday to cut the ribbon on a new airport.
The governor, whose son is a Superior Court judge over a drug court in the Hall County circuit, said more of these accountability courts are needed around the state. He also suggested that technical colleges can play a role in rehabbing prisoners by teaching them a trade.
“We can’t try to continue to deal with the manifestations of the problem,” Deal said. “There ought to be a very clearly stated policy that you earn your way out of prison. We’ve got to do a better job of making resources available in our prison system. It doesn’t do us any good to lock somebody up for a number of years, only to turn them out with no more skills than as when they went in.”
State Rep. Nikki Randall, a Macon Democrat, arranged the afternoon roundtable with the Republican governor, inviting guests that included both elected officials from both parties, as well as representatives from local agencies that provide welfare and health services.
“I have bipartisan friends,” Randall joked.
Deal listened as local leaders touted their programs and departments, then pleaded their cases for help with issues and problems.
Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena said his jail, as are most others around the state, is overcrowded, as well as somewhat overwhelmed by the influx of mentally ill inmates. That problem was only made worse when the state closed its hospital in Milledgeville.
“These people need a treatment center, not a jail,” Modena said.
Bibb County school board members Gary Bechtel and Lynn Farmer asked that the governor allow school systems to use special purpose local option sales tax money for operating expenses.
“It would give us some flexibility in the school budget that we need, and it would not cost the state,” Farmer said.
She also cited improved inter-agency communication as an area in need of improvement, pointing out that school officials now do not have access to records when juvenile offenders re-enroll.
“They consider whatever crime was committed, however heinous, whatever that student did, to be that student’s private information,” Farmer said. “That student doesn’t have the right to privacy if the safety of the student of the other children at that school are threatened. It’s about protecting teachers, too.”
Deal said he expects to introduce a package of reforms dealing with “juvenile issues.” He also said he wants more focus on early childhood education, with the goal being that every child learn to read at grade level by third grade.
Macon City Councilwoman Lauren Benedict suggested sales tax reform that includes “point of sale” collection, similar to methods used in Alabama, to ensure accuracy.
“We’re going to thank you in advance for what you’re going to do to help us out,” Randall said. “We just want to make sure Middle Georgia is not forgotten.” In Warner Robins, Deal met with Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon and took a bus tour of the base.
Deal lauded the $4.27 billion economic impact of Robins and noted that the support of the community would help safeguard the base during another round of future base realignment and closure moves.
McMahon, the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center commander, said he doesn’t talk about whether there’ll be another BRAC. He noted that’s a political decision, and his job is ensuring that the center is at its best at all times.
The military briefings with Deal and the bus tour were closed to the media. Deal, and later McMahon, fielded questions from reporters afterward.
McMahon said discussions with Deal ranged from safety initiatives prompted by Occupational Safety and Health Administration findings to a Georgia-Robins Aerospace Maintenance Partnership, or G-RAMP.
The 30-minute bus tour included a drive-by look at the WRALC and flight line, the Georgia Air National Guard 116th Air Control Wing facility and the home of the 49th Marine Group, now based at Robins after relocating from Naval Air Station Atlanta.
State Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Warner Robins, WRALC Executive Director Deryl Israel and military leaders also were on the tour.
Deal’s other stops included a tour of the Boeing facility on Avondale Road.