Interview with Justice Michael Boggs

Justice Michael Boggs (Justice Boggs): There was not an exact moment
in time that people in our state started to re-evaluate our current
criminal justice policies. It was a building conversation. Governor
Deal was really the leader for the right moment who decided to take
this re-evaluation process on and seek a better way. He has a unique
perspective as a lawyer, a former juvenile court judge, former member
of the GA general assembly and a member of Congress. His broad
experience, skillset and unique perspective helped the people serving
on the Council to leverage relationships and seek the knowledge that
we needed for reforming our system. We studied our state-specific
criminal justice data and we learned what drives criminal conduct, but
we also learned about proven approaches and methods that exist that
remediate unacceptable behavior (outside of prison); improve public
safety and give the taxpayers a good return on investment.

Rep. Jay Neal told me he talked to Gov. Deal as a candidate about the
need for criminal justice reform. Jay was speaking from his
perspective as a legislator and as a pastor. Ideas for reform were
germinating in both of their minds even before he was elected
Governor. Gov. Deal also has a son who is a superior court judge and
runs a successful accountability court in his circuit. I think all of
those factors came together to create a heart-led effort by the
Governor to improve its criminal justice system. Personally, I have
not spoken with the Governor about his motivation for tackling these
issues but to be sure, his leadership on criminal justice reform will
prove to be one of his many remarkable and lasting legacies.

MB: What do you think are the major accomplishments of the Council
over all these years?

Justice Boggs: Long pause….the fact that we have been able to
effectuate politically challenging change with bipartisan support, in
and of itself, is pretty substantial. Much of our success can be
attributable to our collaborative and deliberate data-driven approach
to the issues. We focused on our State’s data and listened to a wide
range of stakeholders. It should also not go unnoticed that almost all
of the recommendations that we have made have been enacted by either
legislation or by regulatory changes that resulted in policy shifts
within departments and administrative agencies. That process itself is
also an accomplishment. We also had the luxury of time to study,
discuss and work on these difficult policy matters that is not
afforded to the legislature in their general 40-day session.

Specific policy achievements are many for our state: (1) averting a
projected 8% prison population growth that would have cost GA
taxpayers 264 million dollars (2) supporting policies to divert low risk, non-violent offenders away from prison beds into proven,
cost-effective programs like accountability court programs (3) the
rewrite of the juvenile code which had been a project of the state bar
and others for years but the Council was able to help drive that
needed modernization of the code to completion (4) the juvenile
justice grant incentive program that has helped divert some 1466 youth
away from 90K a year detention beds (btw-detention beds have a 65%
recidivism rate) to a more cognitive behavior intervention programs
that has been proven across the nation over decades of studies with a
good return on investment for public safety (5) We helped develop a
holistic and comprehensive prisoner reentry plan.

MB. Tell us more about the holistic approach.

Justice Boggs: To be effective, criminal justice reform needs to
address all aspects of the criminal justice system. It is not enough
to simply enact policies to divert prison commitments. To be
successful, all aspects required attention and there was a singular
focus on how the various criminal justice component parts
interrelated. You start looking at commitments into the adult system,
and then you begin to see the juvenile system as a possible driver to
the adult system. Over time and study, you start to see the
institutional changes that need to be made to turn away from the
status quo and turn toward evidence-based practices….you see that
programs within prisons themselves need to change. Today, in Georgia
prisons, you can still get your GED, but you can also get your diploma
and earn college credits; you can now get more comprehensive substance
abuse and mental health treatment. This is all being done to prepare
people for re-entry into society. The issues facing people re-entering
society are enormous and include housing; job readiness;
employability; managing substance abuse and mental health problems and
getting access to services for those problems, getting identification
documents, and dealing with the consequences of having a criminal
record. All of these separate pieces have to be addressed with some
measure of success to be effective.

When I talk to groups, like Rotary clubs, I try and use imagery.
Imagine a pool of water (those are the people in our prison system on
any given day), how can we bail some water out of that pool in a
meaningful way that still ensures public safety (which is our
paramount concern)? However, we also know, that the faucet is still
turned on (which is the juvenile system). So, as we were bailing water
out, the pool still continues to fill b/c we needed to address the
faucet. We also needed to manage the drain better at the bottom of the
pool because 97% of people in prison today will rejoin society. We
want to be smarter about the way we deal with those released from
prison to ensure public safety. We want these individuals to be successful and not return to the pool. Each entry and exit point of the pool has to be addressed with intention or we will not make any progress. Focusing on diversion alone is
relatively easy, but it will not effectively change a state’s criminal
justice system if public safety remains paramount.

Many judges have expressed their frustration with the “revolving door”
of nothing working. I was a superior court judge myself once and I
remember this frustration. If your only tools are probation and
prison, then people will likely not get the proven interventions that
work where public safety is maintained and, we will continue to pay
the high costs of the revolving door. A 30% recidivism rate is simply
unacceptable, particularly when it comes at such a high cost to our
state’s taxpayer. It is even more unacceptable when we know that other
strategies cost less and produce a better public safety return on our
taxpayer’s investment. If we know anything, it is this: bricks and
mortar and guns and guards do not remedy the most prevalent drivers of
criminal conduct – mental health and substance abuse issues.

Also, this work was not about releasing serious violent offenders. We
are not diverting any serious violent offenders. When we started
Criminal Justice reform, 63% of the standing prison population in GA
were classified as serious violent offenders. That number is now 67%.
The low risk, non-violent offenders used to be 47% of the prison
population and now they are 43%. The numbers are heading in the right
direction. We are not being soft on crime, but we need to be smart on
crime. We are leveraging what we know that works. We have been
data-driven and ensured that our state’s data (not the data from other
places) has informed our recommended changes. For example, the
recidivism rate for those coming out of accountability court is much
better than those coming out of prison- and the costs are
exponentially lower. Our charge was to hold offenders accountable,
improve public safety and save taxpayer dollars and we have been true
to that charge.

MB. Tell us more about the high costs.

Justice Boggs: $1.1 billion was being spent to maintain our prison
systems in the Department of Corrections when we started in 2011 and
30% of everyone released were re-arrested and convicted within 3
years. The system, as it was, was not morally or fiscally sustainable.
We have changed the criminal justice system very little for the past
200 years. Moreover, we know that while long prison terms are very
appropriate for some offenders, we now know so much more about what
drives and deters criminal conduct – especially among low-risk
non-violent property and drug offenders. Most every judge agrees that
for this latter class of offender, prison simply does not work to
change behavior or improve public safety. The high costs and low
public safety return on investment was simply not acceptable and we
all agreed that we need to leverage what we knew would work by giving
judges more tools.

MB: What do you think about the movement to accountability courts?

Justice Boggs: I think it is a needed tool but it is not a panacea. It
has however been proven to work for many low-risk drug offenders. Some
judges have resisted because it is a change from the traditional role
of a judge as an objective and neutral arbiter, and accountability
courts can feel like judges are becoming more like social workers.
However, accountability courts are about changing behavior to help
people function in society and avoid prison and I think most judges
and citizens can grasp the importance of helping those we can help
particularly if it costs less and produces a safer society.

MB: Have there been any missteps for the Council’s work?

Justice Boggs: I would not say missteps or failure, but we have had
challenges that are on-going. Being able to effectively implement
change is a challenge for public policy, especially on the scale of a
big criminal justice system. Changing mindsets about what we are doing
and how we are doing it is a challenge. Implementation of the
Council’s varied and broad strategies has been challenging, as it
would be for any comprehensive policy shift among various state
agencies. Taking accountability courts to scale has been a challenge.
More defendants could potentially benefit from the model, but we do
not have the capacity to take them in or we have the capacity but the
capacity is not being used. We have a very successful juvenile justice
incentive program, but it only operates in 51 of our 159 Georgia
counties. However, I would say our biggest challenge has been the lack
of good data—while we have better data than most states, we have a
problem with agencies within our criminal justice system using
different management information systems within their siloed agencies.
For example, there are numerous misdemeanor probation providers and
separate county and municipal providers. These providers all use their
own information systems with very little sharing, so trying to glean
anything meaningful from this sort of data is difficult. The juvenile
justice arena is also difficult. We have 14 independent juvenile
courts that operate with their own information systems, and
aggregating the data from these across these systems has proved to be
most difficult. Other states are struggling with the same thing. We
have made some progress in this arena but need more useful data.

MB: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to change law or policy?

Justice Boggs: Effectuating policy change is tough, and it should be.
Importantly though, policy change to be most effective should include
attention to implementation. The difficulty with policy work is that
it is typically reactionary – passed to address a perceived (and
sometimes isolated) problem, with little thought to subsequently
revisiting the matter to ensure it was implemented successfully and
that it produces the result you expected. When possible, removing
politics and rhetoric from the discussion is always helpful. Our
council has been successful largely because we have been inclusive in
creating policies and focused not on political remedies, but rather
focused on data. How does the data fully inform our decision-making?
An objective data view of a problem is core to making a case that a
particular law or policy should change. Also, defining the end goal is
also important—what will this change do to impact public safety? Will
it hold offenders accountable? Will it save taxpayers money? Those are
the things that will resonate with the general assembly. Stories alone
will only take you so far. Anecdotes and even moral imperatives are
generally not enough to change public policy. To me, data matters.

MB: Don’t you think persistence makes a difference too?

Justice Boggs: Persistence is part of the equation. I was appointed by
then Chief Justice Hunstein, along with herself and Judge Ural
Glanville to the Criminal Justice Reform Council in 2011 and I am
still here. I think my legislative experience has been helpful to the
Council. Once we got H.B. 1176 passed unanimously, the Council
obtained a lot of political capital to keep going and dive deeper into
the criminal justice reform arena. The work has continued with heavier
lifts each year. We could not have done some of the things we did in
year 5 or 6 in year 1. There was a balance in how to responsibly
affect public policy. We had the luxury of time to study issues and
data more comprehensively, and have been moderately successful in
building a certain level of credibility and trust with others in our

MB: What is left to be done?

Justice Boggs: The Council was statutorily created and it expires in
June 2018. I’m looking at that date as an end for now. I’m hoping we
can do some bail reform work and clean-ups and house-keeping of laws
that need tweaking during the 2018 legislative session. I would love
to do more work on fines and fees of criminal defendants, remediate
multiple issues with our state’s mental health system and address the
opioid issue confronting our state. But, we likely will not get to
that work before June. An enormous amount of money is being collected
on the backs of criminal defendants-some 550 million dollars just last
year. Fines can often be important in holding people accountable, but
the surcharges mount up and arguably do not meet the objective of
serving justice. I serve on the National Task Force on Fines, Fees and
Bail Practices which emerged as a result of the Ferguson report. I
have learned a lot over the past year about problems at a national
level and about needed changes in Georgia. I also wish we could take
on a more thorough study of the issue of decriminalization of certain
traffic offenses. Some non-moving offenses could potentially be
converted to civil infractions thus not even implicating the criminal
justice system. Generally though, I feel that the past seven years
have been an enormous success for Georgians. We have become a national
thought leader on the issue of responsible “smart-on-crime” criminal
justice reform and I am proud to have been involved in the process.