August 29, 2017 Print

Tony Kitchens, former inmate at Georgia’s Walker State Prison, celebrating thirty years of successful reintegration in January 2015. Kitchens is one of GCO’s many expert consultants who participated in its Prisoner Reentry working group. 

Georgia leads the country in the number of people under correctional supervision – currently 1 in 13 statewide, starkly higher than the 1 in 31 nationwide rate. And two-thirds of those eventually released from prison are likely to be rearrested within three years of their release. Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) has engaged with this issue head-on through its Prisoner Reentry Initiative. After forming a prisoner reentry working group in 2013, GCO used its expert insights to produce two landmark reports – Increasing Employment Opportunities for Ex-Offenders (Dec 2013) and, A High Price to Pay (revised May 2015) – both of which presented recommended solutions to policymakers. In the years that followed, nearly all of GCO’s recommendations have been passed into laws, not only enhancing opportunities for former inmates to reintegrate into society and reducing recidivism risks, but also helping tens of thousands of individuals and families who had suffered from an inability to get back on their feet after reentering society. With a 6 percent drop in Georgia’s prison population since 2012 – a $264 million saving for taxpayers – the reforms spearheaded by GCO are driving this positive trend. Having experienced great success through its research and advocacy model, GCO is collaborating with various groups to implement the Prisoner Reentry Initiative nationwide to give formerly incarcerated individuals and their families a renewed and revitalized outlook on life.

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The launch of the prisoner reentry working group in 2013 followed several months of research, nearly 50 interviews, and visits to four separate prison facilities. The composition of the working group covered a diverse array of professionals – representing addiction recovery, research and reentry consulting, non-profits, and state criminal justice agencies – all with deep expertise in the state’s correctional system. The eight working group members met monthly for a year to develop policy recommendations concerning reducing recidivism by improving positive outcomes for formerly incarcerated individuals. It was afforded greater freedom to propose bold policy solutions by the medium of a non-partisan think tank that would otherwise not have been available with government commissions.

"A laser-like focus on building authentic relationships and seeking common ground makes it possible to pursue bipartisan policy reforms without sacrificing your principles," said Eric Cochling, executive vice president and general counsel for GCO.

The two reports published in the wake of the working group advocated solutions to help formerly incarcerated individuals find work, connect with their families, and reintegrate into society. The first report focused on providing means to improve workforce reentry and the second supported solutions that would minimize the role that debt plays in driving recidivism. These two reports compiled the working group’s recommendations and were submitted to the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, a group created during the 2013 legislative session to conduct a comprehensive review of various aspects of the criminal justice system of Georgia, which in turn included GCO’s recommendations in its final report to Governor Nathan Deal.

Hand-in-hand with the academic and political campaign is an ongoing, on-the-ground initiative to partner with businesses in “Hiring Well, Doing Good,” which provides education and other resources for business leaders on the policy changes and assists them in the hiring process of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals.

A Better and Brighter Future for Georgia

The ensuing legislative victories incorporating GCO’s recommendations were many. SB 365 passed in April 2014, giving judges discretion on whether or not to automatically suspend drug offenders’ driver’s licenses who had committed non-driving-related offenses and protecting employers from liability in hiring individuals with criminal records. Next, Governor Deal issued an executive order prohibiting employers from asking job applicants whether they have a criminal record on job applications, becoming the first Southern state to “ban the box.” HB 328, passed in 2015, allows offenders who have successfully participated in a drug court program to be eligible for obtaining occupational licenses. Revisions to the functioning of the Division of Child Support Services that ended the practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of those who are behind in child support payments were also passed in 2015. Lastly, SB 367 was passed in 2016. This bill was a comprehensive package of reforms including: expanded access to occupational licensing, added liability protection for employers, increased funding for Parental Accountability Courts that reduce incarceration and encourage parents to support their children, and more.

These reforms are already helping tens of thousands of individuals and families by helping released prisoners reenter society and live self-sufficient lives, resulting in more intact families, less crime, and fewer taxpayer dollars going to prisons. Roughly 18,000 prisoners are released each year in Georgia, bringing the number of formerly incarcerated individuals benefitting from these reforms to over 50,000. Half a million people on probation also benefit from many of the reforms. In 2015 the average population in Georgia state prisons was 36,876, down from 38,112 in 2013 (before any legislation was passed). Prison populations have likewise fallen in detention centers, probation boot camps, and private prisons. This represents a 6 percent drop in the Georgian prison population since 2012 and has produced $264 million in savings.

“GCO's Prisoner Reentry Initiative demonstrates that compassion for the incarcerated and their families can be aligned with the interests of taxpayers and public safety,” said Atlas Network CEO Brad Lips. “It's a wonderful initiative that deserves to be emulated.”

GCO’s unique use of the working group model to bring together an assortment of stakeholders elevated its work by bridging research, policy, and practice to advocate feasible and common-sense reform. The working group also provided respected thought leaders ready to advocate the solutions it was proposing.

GCO is now working to export its successful initiative to other states by partnering with American Legislative Exchange Council, Right on Crime, and State Policy Network while also working with American Enterprise Institute and the U.S. Congress to implement similar criminal justice reforms on a national scale. The Prisoner Reentry Initiative has already successfully promoted greater access to employment and increased economic freedom in Georgia, making it an attractive example to follow.

About the Templeton Freedom Award and the additional 2017 finalists:

Awarded since 2004, the Templeton Freedom Award is named for the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The award annually honors his legacy by identifying and recognizing the most exceptional and innovative contributions to the understanding of free enterprise, and the public policies that encourage prosperity, innovation, and human fulfillment via free competition. The award is generously supported by Templeton Religion Trust and will be presented during Atlas Network’s Freedom Dinner on Nov. 8 in New York City at the historic Capitale. The winning organization will receive a $100,000 prize, and five additional finalists will receive $25,000 prizes. In addition to GCO, the other finalists for the 2017 Templeton Freedom Award are:

For media inquiries about the 2017 Templeton Freedom Award, contact Daniel Anthony at Daniel.Anthony@AtlasNetwork.org or (202) 449-8441.