Will state and business crime crackdown efforts undo Georgia’s new justice reforms?
Gov. Brian Kemp and state GOP allies say they want to curb rising crime in Atlanta and other parts of Georgia by hiring more police officers, increasing pay, and passing tougher policies in the fall and 2022. In a press conference at a June 2020 Georgia State Patrol headquarters Kemp detailed plans to work with police and organizers as protests over racial injustice and police brutality simmered. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder
Updated 9:15 a.m. Sept. 8 with comment from the Greater Georgia Black Chamber of Commerce.
If Gov. Brian Kemp persists with his tough-on-crime plans during an anticipated special session late this fall, powerful business lobbyists with statewide sway will likely have his back in spite of corporate diversity pushes that followed Georgia’s recent criminal justice reform initiatives.
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce is rallying behind the proposals by the Republican governor and lawmakers from his party to hire more police officers in communities across Georgia, boost their pay, and give law enforcement more latitude. Kemp is pressing Georgia business leaders to take a stand against crime, leading a growing GOP chorus ahead of next year’s election campaigns.
With Atlanta experiencing a second successive year of surging homicides, assaults, and other violent offenses, Georgia’s capital city has dominated recent discussions among state lawmakers taking aim at local Democratic leaders they blame for the spike in violence.
While Kemp’s plans are short on details so far, he’s warning that without state intervention and the help of business community, rampant crime could dry up investments, leading to fewer people working or patronizing local businesses.
A crackdown on criminals is a popular topic these days at the state Capitol. Blue Ridge Republican House Speaker David Ralston is calling for $75 million to be spent on everything from new troopers to raises for police and mental health services. And Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan proposes a $250 million tax credit program that would encourage businesses and individuals to donate money to their local police departments.
We want to take dangerous people off the streets. We want to make sure folks that are coming back out hopefully have the skill sets and the capabilities to get a job and then move on with their life away from crime.
– Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan
Nonetheless, the state GOP’s targeting of Atlanta’s crime wave raises questions about how to best step up law enforcement while preserving criminal justice reforms established over the past decade under former GOP Gov. Nathan Deal.
Deal is credited with winning support for changing the approach to policing in the state to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment by establishing drug and mental health courts that kept more people out of jail and aimed to reduce mass incarceration.
Will that new approach in Georgia be undone by an overcorrection to recent crime sprees in Atlanta?
Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, said he worries that the Republicans’ plans are more knee-jerk reactions instead of sound policy. He said he’s worried that GOP will present legislation that could erode some of the headway made on systemic problems.
“We know that locking more people up for longer sentences is taking away their ability piece by piece to participate in society,” McLaurin said.
But the Georgia Chamber, which advocated for changes to the state’s Civil War-era citizens’ arrest law, creating a hate crimes statute and supported Deal’s criminal justice reform measures, is also throwing its support behind the recent Republican push to respond forcefully to lawlessness..
As the fear of crime is growing in communities beyond Atlanta and into some rural areas of the state, Georgia Chamber President and CEO Chris Clark said it’s imperative that more investments are made in public safety.
Atlanta last year became Georgia’s epicenter of protests against racial and social injustice, sparked by the killings of Minneapolis’ George Floyd and Brunswick’s Ahmaud Arbery, whose shooting death spurred Georgia lawmakers to pass hate crimes law last year and repeal the citizen’s arrest law the year before with the backing of Kemp, Duncan and Ralston.
And on Aug. 10, Kemp said the local chambers are in a unique position to help tough problems.
Clark wrote in an Aug. 10 column on chamber’s website that it’s critical to keep investing in impoverished communities, child care programs, education, and start-up businesses as means to promote equity. Research suggests that these latest social disruptions and economic hardships are associated with criminal activity, he said.
“For 10 years, Georgia has made great strides in criminal justice reform and businesses have found a strong and dedicated pipeline of labor from ex-offenders,” he wrote. “Now state and local leaders have mobilized to lead a truly bipartisan effort to tackle these new problems head on.”
The state chamber and Metro Atlanta Chamber have also been allies in addressing racial inequality in the business sector and supported criminal justice reform efforts in the business community, including partnering in 2020 with local Black and Hispanic chambers.
In a statement, the Greater Georgia Black Chamber of Commerce said that it looks forward to meeting with Kemp to get a better understanding of what will be in the crime bill and how it would be carried out.
“We have enjoyed an open dialogue with the governor’s office in the past and intend to engage on this issue,” said Melinda Sylvester, president and CEO of the state Black chamber. “Black business owners throughout the state are always concerned about public safety.
“At the same time, Black business owners want to make sure that law enforcement is committed to having a healthy and supportive presence in our neighborhoods and commercial space,” Sylvester added
At the August gathering with business leaders in Columbus, Kemp made his pitch for them to join his law and order push.
“Your knowledge of the diversity of your friends and neighbors, your experience in leading teams and being a voice for the businesses and industries that employ people in your community, all of that is crucial to this effort,” Kemp said. “Because when local leaders have difficult conversations about issues that impact the daily lives of everyone around them and hold people accountable, real change can happen.”
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Duncan said the backing from the business community would not only lead to more investment into local police departments and sheriff’s offices but spur others to take an active role in helping, whether financially or by other means.
His plan is for a tax program to let donors receive a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit back for contributing to city and county law enforcement agencies to hire new officers, pay for training and increase wages.
The idea is modelled after Georgia’s rural hospital tax credit program that employs tax breaks to encourage taxpayers to donate to struggling hospitals.
A pro-law enforcement tax program does not have to come at the expense of years of work done in reshaping the criminal justice system to provide more rehabilitation services and less prison time, he said.
“We think there’s additional opportunities for us to continue to find ways to reform in a way that matches our 11 million citizens’ expectations,” Duncan said. “We want to take dangerous people off the streets. We want to make sure folks that are coming back out hopefully have the skill sets and the capabilities to get a job and then move on with their life away from crime.”
Danny Kanso, a policy analyst for the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said he’s uncertain how the program could legally allow government agencies to get donations for police salaries.
“The use of tax credits is a very indirect way to attempt to make public policy independent and so I would certainly question why the state would start out looking at a tax credit rather than trying to directly accomplish its policy goals through traditional means,” he said.
Multi-faceted approach to crime
It’s also unclear how much of an impact the pandemic is fueling Atlanta’s crime rate or spikes in violence in other parts of the state.
Last week, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant told state lawmakers that more officer patrols would be helpful, but that more arrests aren’t the only solution.
Efforts to reduce crime spurred a plan from Atlanta Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ committee to spend $70 million on the hiring of 250 police officers, expand the city’s video surveillance system and create an office focused on reducing crime.
Peter Skandalakis, executive director of Georgia’s Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council agrees reducing crime for the long haul requires more than hiring more officers and paying them better. It’s important to continue investing in pre-trial diversion programs like accountability courts and finding ways to close the gap in resources among juvenile courts, Skandalakis said.
The complexity of a police officer’s job is often misunderstood, but with an emphasis of quality training over quantity, officers are more likely to uphold the professional standards expected in Georgia, he said.
“A couple more thousand dollars isn’t necessarily going to alleviate the stress but what will alleviate stress is a good working relationship with the business community and the neighborhood, and the people we serve,” Skandalakis said.
“We’re not going to be able to cure this overnight, but we just need to take steps so people feel safe going to downtown LaGrange, going to downtown Athens, going to downtown Atlanta,” he said. “Right now this is a statewide issue and I think the governor, Speaker Ralston and (Lt. Gov.) Duncan understand that.”
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