Lots of things die at the end of a legislative session: bills, constitutional amendments, one’s faith in humanity (just kidding about that last one – mostly).
Some of what doesn’t survive is not to be regretted; some is. Rarely do lawmakers stand by as an effective entity fades into the sunset. But there was one such case this year.
The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform was created in 2013 – by a law that provided for its dissolution on June 30, 2018, unless legislators voted to keep it running. They did not. So, after five years of vetting and proposing ways to make the state’s criminal justice system work smarter, the council will close less than three months from now.
The original idea was to let the council serve through Gov. Nathan Deal’s final legislative session, then let his successor decide whether to bring it back. It might be possible for Deal to extend the council’s life on his own, perhaps by re-establishing it under an existing agency. Either way, the next governor should seek to reauthorize it legislatively. There’s more work to be done on this front, including the work of demonstrating how the new policies are performing and what would improve them.
I’m a process guy – all the personality-typing systems out there tell me it’s in my nature – so I’m drawn to the process this council established. Although several of the council’s 15 members are elected officials, they and the other members are appointed to the council. That affords them some political insulation in researching and forming their proposals – which, of course, must be approved by legislators and signed by the governor to take effect. That insulation lets them seek the best ideas for reform, with political accountability for those ideas on the back end.
It’s a system that works, and would continue to work. And not just for criminal justice reform.
Consider, for example, how difficult health-care reform has been on the state level. (We’ll set aside the mess at the federal level for today.) There are market-oriented ideas such as direct primary care, which allows patients to contract with doctors for a menu of services, including visits to specialists, as a complement to high-deductible, catastrophic insurance plans. That is, it’s “insurance” rather than just prepaid health care, the way insurance works for automobiles. But neither direct primary care nor many other ideas that would put decisions in the hands of patients and doctors, instead of government or, in some cases, insurers, have gotten through the General Assembly. Maybe working through the obstacles and objections outside the hurried, 40-day session would help?
Another thorny issue that could use this kind of process is the soaring taxpayer cost of teacher pensions. Georgia must keep its promises to those teachers already on staff or retired. But the state needs a new, effective retirement plan for teachers hired in the future, since the current arrangement is becoming fiscally untenable and may not be attractive to tomorrow’s work force anyway. That is, however, a debate most elected officials are loath to tackle. Perhaps they’d be more willing to take up pension legislation if the hard work of crunching the numbers and narrowing the possibilities was done by one of these kinds of councils, with representation from pension experts and education professionals alike.
The next governor would be wise not only to keep the Council on Criminal Justice Reform in place, but to use it as a blueprint for other reforms.