On a Friday the 13th in October 1995, a police car pulled into a cul-de-sac in Macon, Georgia. Officers saw a man throw a paper bag on the ground and sprint behind a house.
Thanks to the 34 grams of cocaine in that paper bag, the man, Darion Barker, would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He wasn’t a drug kingpin and didn’t have a violent record. But Georgia’s tough-on-crime sentencing laws gave his judge no choice.
Barker had a record: In five years, he was convicted of a robbery charge and three drug charges. He had served in the U.S. Army after graduating high school, but wasn’t able to find a job when he got back. He was already using drugs, and just about everyone he knew who didn’t have a steady job was selling cocaine.
His record meant that this, his fourth conviction, would lead to a life sentence. “At the time, that was the furthest thing away from my mind,” he told me. He has a shaved head and a big, slightly gap-toothed smile. “Even if somebody would have told me [I might serve life], in my rational mind, probably I would’ve thought, I ain’t kill anybody, this isn’t violent.”
For the next 20 years, Barker got used to the routine of prison. He found solace in the quiet prison law library, where he took paralegal classes and helped other inmates with their cases. As his own appeals were denied, Barker said he never lost hope. He was always looking for a case like his, trying to figure out if he had a chance of going free. And he never found another example of someone who was given life for such a small criminal record.
“What kept me motivated was, still in my mind, it didn’t make no sense,” he said. “Even though I might not have seen much of it myself, I still felt that God was going to let me get some kind of justice in the long run.”
And then, on the Fourth of July last year, his mother told him she had received a phone call. The man on the other line said her son was coming home.
That phone call was one product of a sweeping and ongoing reform drive in Georgia that has rewritten criminal justice laws here, reducing the number of people who get locked up and easing their reentry into society after release.
Not too long ago, the state was the epitome of tough-on-crime policies: A 2009 Pew study found that one in 13 Georgians was under criminal supervision (in jail, on probation, or on parole), the highest rate of any state. In the early ‘90s, legislators guaranteed life without parole for a variety of repeat offenders. The state prison population ballooned from about 20,000 in 1990 to more than 50,000 in 2004. As of 2010, African-Americans made up 58% of the prison population, even though they’re only 31% of the state population.
In the last five years, however, Georgia has started a U-turn. Since 2011, Governor Nathan Deal and the legislature have completely rewritten the adult and juvenile justice codes, creating new opportunities to divert nonviolent offenders from prison or detention. Deal took executive action to “ban the box,” removing a check-box on state job applications where people have to report if they have a criminal history. And a new law passed last year gave lifers like Barker a second chance to get out of prison.
Already, the prison population has seen modest, yearly declines from its peak in 2009, even as the state’s overall population has grown. Several prisons and juvenile detention centers have been closed. At the same time, more people charged with drug crimes are getting treatment, not prison. Cost savings have been higher than predicted, and are being reinvested into alternative programs like substance abuse counseling or mental health treatment. Crime rates overall have even gone down in the past few years.
Notably, all these reforms have passed unanimously or almost unanimously in a legislature that has been controlled by Republican supermajorities in both houses, and with a conservative, Republican governor in office.
“This kind of reform is not a partisan issue,” Governor Deal told me in a phone interview. “If you look at it through a partisan lens, you’re not going to get something that works.”
While a lot of attention has been paid to criminal justice reform on the national level, there’s only so much that President Obama and Congress can do. Fewer than 10% of America’s prisoners are in federal prisons; a large majority of our incarcerated population is instead housed in state prisons. That makes reform at the state level even more important.
It’s said that state governments are laboratories for the country. If that’s true, then Georgia is at the cutting edge.
I n his early 30s, Nathan Deal was appointed to be a juvenile judge for a huge swath of rural northern Georgia. He drove across the region, hearing cases from truancy to violent crime. Deal, who has a chiseled face and high cheekbones, remembers being frustrated by having only two real options for the young defendants before him: He could either let them go, sending them back into the situation where they got in trouble, or commit them to a juvenile detention center.
“Neither of those were very good choices,” Deal said. If he locked kids up, “their likelihood of reoffending was pretty high.” But if he let them walk, “I wasn’t helping them deal with their issues.”
After serving stints in the State Senate and Congress, Deal—who still speaks with the measured, authoritative diction of a judge—was elected governor in 2011. Forty years after he had served on the bench, not much had changed. “The reality was that those were still pretty much the main choices that a juvenile court justice faced,” he said.
So he decided to do something about it. Deal convened a panel of prosecutors, attorneys, judges, law enforcement officials, and members of the legislature. This Council on Criminal Justice Reform was tasked with coming up with specific legislative recommendations to reduce prison populations and rethink the system.
The panel’s first reforms involved creating alternative court systems, like drug courts and mental health courts. If you’re charged with a drug crime, for example, you’ll get a specific judge trained to handle drug cases. Instead of facing lock up or just being let go, you’ll have the option to get treatment in your community.
More recently, the panel has focused on re-entry, starting training programs for inmates to get job certifications before they’re released. “If you’re going to just make them serve a sentence and turn them loose and they still don’t have a high school diploma or a GED or any marketable skills, well no wonder we have one in three back in the system after they’re released,” Deal said. “The best way to change that is to change the ability of released inmates to get a job.”
That also came with his executive action to ban the box on state job applications. Now, anyone applying for a state job will only have to discuss their criminal history later on in the application process, after they’ve gotten the chance to talk up their qualifications. Their application can’t just be thrown away because of one mark. He hopes it will “set the example” for private sector hiring practices as well.
Deal has become an evangelist for criminal justice reforms, talking up his state’s actions at the Republican Governors Association and at meetings with leaders from other states. He has a reputation for tearing up a little when he talks about the progress Georgia has made.
He also knows that political winds can shift quickly. All it takes is one inmate to be released early and commit a terrible, headline-winning crime, and the actions the state has taken could be reversed. “We can’t afford to make a mistake,” he said. “We need to make sure our reforms keep our population safe. That’s what you always worry about.”
Deal is a real conservative—opposing abortion, gay marriage, and gun control. He wants to bar Syrian refugees from the state. But elected officials across the political spectrum here praise him for his criminal justice advocacy.
“I am excited to work with him—I am tickled and thrilled with the things that I see,” said Keisha Waites, a Democratic state representative from Atlanta. “I see us moving in the right direction.”
For decades, state politicians tripped over each other racing to lock criminals away. The height of Georgia’s tough-on-crime era came in the early ‘90s, under the direction of another governor, Democrat Zell Miller, a former marine with an independent streak.
Alan Powell, who’s served in the state assembly for 25 years and is now the chairman of the Public Safety committee, remembered how Miller vowed to crack down on criminals. “The Republicans at the time started making an issue about Democrats being weak on crime,” Powell told me in a dulcet drawl. “Big mistake when you were talking about Governor Miller, because Governor Miller was never weak on anything.”
In April 1994, during a competitive re-election race, Miller signed a “two-strikes law” that required a minimum 10-year sentence for defendants convicted of first-time murder, armed robbery, rape, aggravated battery, or other serious crimes. Second-time offenders received life sentences without the chance of parole. It passed the state legislature 166-7 and is still on the books. Only a few other states, including South Carolina and Tennessee, have two-strike laws as severe. Other measures denied parole to anyone who had four felony convictions; Barker was caught on that law.
It was those kind of policies, experts say, that led to the state’s ballooning prisons. Miller later bragged about opening more prison beds than any previous governor. It also created a deeply uneven system: In 1994, 419 of the 423 inmates serving life sentences for drug crimes were black. Most were behind bars for selling less than $50 worth of drugs, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. (Now 83, Miller did not respond to a request for comment.)
Few political leaders seemed to have the courage to do anything about it. Alarm bells didn’t go off until the 2009 Pew study named Georgia the state with the top criminal supervision rate in the country.
That brought a group of nonprofit leaders together to figure out how to change the justice system. “It had become the third rail of conservative politics,” said Kelly McCutchen, the president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a free market-focused think tank. McCutchen’s organization spends most of its time on causes like lawsuits against Obamacare and opposing the EPA’s clean power rules. But he joined with other groups like the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center to try to address the state’s prison system.
Their argument to conservatives was pretty simple: In Georgia, it costs $18,000 to $20,000 a year to lock up an adult, and $90,000 to lock up a juvenile. On top of that, nearly one in three inmates released re-offends and goes back to prison. That makes Georgia’s prison system about the most wasteful and inefficient example of big government you can think of—in the same league as healthcare.gov.
“You can make the argument that it’s the right thing to do for a whole lot of reasons, but it certainly helps if you can say we’re also saving a whole lot of money,” McCutchen said.
After Deal’s election in 2011, the wheels started to turn. McCutchen’s organization held events for legislators to discuss reform and signed up a “who’s who” of conservative leaders, from Newt Gingrich to Grover Norquist, to endorse the potential changes. It was an effort to show legislators that “we’ll have your back” if they vote in favor, McCutchen said. Meanwhile, Deal was a strong voice for change, and the fact that the reforms were proposed by a council of experts gave legislators even more political cover. (Other governors like Illinois’ Bruce Rauner have since followed that same method.)
Advocates also spread the reforms across several years. “Sometimes it’s what we call radical incrementalism,” McCutchen said. “We’ve done some big things—but not all at once.”
By the time the bills came up for a vote, almost all of them passed unanimously or with a tiny handful of “no” votes—just like the tough-on-crime measures passed almost unanimously in the early ‘90s.
Powell, the longtime assembly member, is a perfect example. He represents a chunk of rural northern Georgia and is hardly a liberal. (When I told him I was going back to New York City in a few days, he said, “I’m so sorry,” noting how unsafe I’d be without the right to carry a gun and protect myself.)
He voted for the two-strikes rule and other tough-on-crime policies in the ‘90s. And a couple decades later, he voted for the reforms rethinking those policies.
“I make no apologies of that period of being tough on crime,” Powell said, leaning back and putting his black leather shoes up on his desk. “It was a sign of the times, the public wanted to see that… But now, would I rather see money spent unnecessarily on locking people up than on alternative sentencing, or would I want to see that money going to schools and healthcare?”
Powell added: “Despite what a lot of the more self-proclaimed civilized folks think, Georgia’s not as backwards as they think we are. We’re actually quite compassionate about doing the right thing.”
For many impacted by the state’s criminal justice system, these kind of reforms mean second chances—whether that’s the chance to stay out of prison or to get a job.
They’ve helped people like Steven Robertson, 22, who was charged with robbery and aggravated assault in Clayton County, just south of Atlanta, five years ago. “I started off making wrong decisions,” he said, hanging out with the wrong people and eventually robbing someone with a gun and a taser.
Robertson, who’s tall and soft-spoken, with short braids hanging from the back of his head, was offered a choice between serving years in juvie and enrolling in a new pilot program for young defendants called “Second Chance Court.” In the program, he was allowed to stay at home and go to school while on a form of probation. At the beginning, enrollees must wear ankle monitors and are subjected to curfews and regular drug screenings. Every day after school, they have counseling and mandatory cognitive behavior classes at a community center, and then play basketball or just hang out. Once a week, the young adults and their parents meet with a judge and talk about their futures. It lasts as long as the judge thinks each individual requires, anywhere from a few months to more than a year.
The judge gave everyone on the program a piece of paper with the words “FIVE YEARS” written on it. “It’s so you remember what’s waiting for you,” Robertson said. Once during the program, he got angry and pushed a school official. He was sitting in the principal’s office, waiting to be reported. “I looked at the paper and thought, ‘Is it worth it?’” he said. He decided to go and apologize, and the official didn’t report the incident.
Family members and teachers told Robertson he would never make it to age 21. Now, he’s the only one in his family to ever graduate from high school. “Honestly I know if it wasn’t for this program, I wouldn’t be sitting right here,” he said. “To see my family coming to my graduation, just to see the looks on their faces, just to see everybody holding my diploma… I used to always think the law was out to get you, but I have gotten a second chance to do better.”
Leandra Phommavongsay, 20, who went to the same program after he was charged with aggravated assault and robbery, also says it changed his life. Now he has a barber certificate and is thinking about starting his own business.
“Some of the people who were our age, or coming up right after us, and didn’t get the Second Chance Court, well, they’re dead,” Phommavongsay said. “Some of them have died, some of them are in prison facing 25, facing 10 years in a maximum-security prison, and some of them are stuck with nothing, a rap sheet that they can’t do anything with.”
“I don’t know where I’m going, but I know it’s better than where we’ve been,” he said.
A program like Second Chance Court is now running in almost every county in the state, thanks to a state grant suggested by Governor Deal’s reform council. The judge who created it in Clayton County, Steve Teske, is a member of the council.
“If I sent them to prison, I guarantee you prison would be in their life forever,” said Teske, who’s grandfatherly and professorial, with a mop of unkempt hair, a bow tie, and glasses perched on the tip of his nose. “The research on what works is already out there. It wasn't like what I did was novel… I simply put it together.”
In the first nine months that programs like this were available, counties that used them recorded a 62% decline in the number of juveniles sent to detention. That’s one of the reasons the state was able to close two detention centers in 2013 and 2014. A year in a program like this costs about $6,000 to $8,000, versus $90,000 for a year in detention, and its graduates are far less likely to commit another crime.
Meanwhile, the state’s employment policies are also giving new hope to many who saw their criminal record as a ball and chain preventing them from getting a good job. That’s a lot of Georgians—one in 13 people in the state have a criminal record.
I mentioned criminal justice reform to my waiter at an old-school Southern restaurant in downtown Atlanta, and told him about Deal’s move to ban the box. “You mean I can apply for a state job?” the waiter, Craig Phillips, asked me.
Phillips, 38, has been in and out of prison for years on several nonviolent drug charges. He said he applied to and was rejected for 17 jobs before he got the waiter position. Several times, he was hired and almost started working when his new employer realized they had overlooked his history and quickly let him go.
“That box on the application is still a prison cell, really,” he said, sitting down across from me over a meal of fried chicken, collard greens, and a hunk of mashed potatoes. “It’s like you go from a 5-by-7 prison cell to a 2 centimeter cell… You can’t escape.”
When Darion Barker’s 73-year-old mother told him on the Fourth of July that someone had called and said he was getting out of prison, he didn’t believe it at first. He told her to call the parole board back and make sure it wasn’t some prank call.
It was very real. Two weeks later, Barker was going free. He realized he had read the bill that would lead to his freedom in the prison’s law library, a few months before it passed. At the time, he didn’t think it applied to him. “I had read so many like it,” he said. “I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
At first, he didn’t tell any of his friends. “I kept it to myself because still I’m not really believing it myself,” he said. But finally, the night before, it started to feel real. His cellmates only believed it when he started giving away his possessions.
Now he’s living a quiet life back with his mother in Macon, pursuing a barber’s license. He thinks about getting a job as a paralegal—two decades in the law library would be a pretty good resume. He feels lucky that he made it through, and that’s he’s living his life with the support of his family. “At this parole office, I see all these guys who got out yesterday, they don’t have a home and they don’t even know what they’ll do today,” he said.
I asked him about July 16, the day he finally got out of prison. “Man, it’s hard to find words to describe it,” he said. “I can tell you this. In the past, I had been to prison in ‘94, ‘95, and me at the time not knowing about what’s supposed to be the proper way of leaving a situation like that, when the bus pulled off, I looked back.”
That act—looking back at the prison as he left—might be the reason he ended up behind bars again with a life sentence, Barker thinks. It’s hard to blame him for being superstitious. Getting arrested on a Friday the 13th will do that to you.
So last summer, as his mother drove away with him in the backseat, Barker was determined not to make the same mistake again.
“This time, I closed my eyes and made sure I didn’t look back,” he said, with a low, gravelly laugh. “I don’t know if that has anything to do with anything. But I can truly say, when we got on the highway, it did seem like the air was a little bit fresher.”
Correction: This post originally misspelled Kelly McCutchen's last name.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.