From the Chair

There is no higher calling for government leaders than protecting the safety and liberty of our people.

As a member of Congress and especially as Governor of Georgia, I witnessed firsthand the power of our criminal justice system to change lives, and not always for the better. Mindful of that experience, and convinced that we must use facts, data, and evidence to move our justice system forward, I was honored to partner with the Council on Criminal Justice as chair of its Task Force on Federal Priorities. This report reflects the expertise and wisdom of many exceptional and committed people, and I believe its timely recommendations are realistic and achievable, yet also capable of producing profound change. The Task Force did not arrive at this moment by happenstance. At the close of 2018, a bipartisan group of advocates, elected leaders, and families met at the White House to watch President Trump sign the FIRST STEP Act into law. Passed with overwhelming support from conservatives and progressives alike, the act eased some mandatory minimum sentences, addressed troubling prison conditions, and expanded opportunities for incarcerated people to earn credits toward an earlier release. The bipartisan spirit that propelled the act toward passage demonstrated that the conditions enabling a wave of reforms in the states had, at last, blossomed in Washington. Determined to accelerate that momentum, the Council on Criminal Justice convened the Task Force. Its mandate: to identify the actionable, politically viable steps that the federal government can take now to produce the greatest improvements in public safety and the administration of justice. Like all strong blue-ribbon panels, the Task Force was a diverse group. Members included the general counsel of Koch Industries, a former mayor and police chief, experts in substance use and victim rights, a leading federal defender, a former Deputy Attorney General of the United States, and two people who have experienced imprisonment themselves. We did not see eye to eye on everything, but we did commit as a group to issuing bold recommendations that are also pragmatic and hold potential to have the most substantial impact on Americans. Given that, and given our focus on the federal system, our proposals do not address many pressing issues generating attention in the criminal justice field, and the media, today. The Task Force considered, for example, examining racial disparities, the emerging threat of white nationalism, federal gun control, and the use of cash bail. In some cases, members believed such issues required further research and analysis before a responsible, evidence-based recommendation for federal action could be produced. In other cases, it was clear that the federal government had limited tools to influence the issue, or that it was unlikely that Congress could agree on a remedy. After vigorous deliberations that began in June 2019, the Task Force reached consensus on 15 recommendations that, if adopted, would significantly advance criminal justice reform at the federal level. They span the full spectrum of justice topics, from violence reduction to sentencing, the need for oversight of federal prisons, marijuana policy, and initiatives to help the formerly incarcerated lead stable, successful lives. By endorsing the final report, our members signify their agreement with the general policy thrust and judgments reached by the greater group, though not necessarily every finding and recommendation. As the Task Force wraps up its work, I am filled with optimism. The harsh political rhetoric of the past has softened, replaced by possibilities for progress on an issue that once was so divisive. Reform won’t be easy, but we can and must use this pivotal moment in time to work for a more fair and effective federal system that provides safety and justice for all. My passion for that mission is perhaps best reflected in the lyrics of a Johnny Cash song, Man in Black, which illustrate the human potential we so often squander in prisons across our land.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town. I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, but is there because he’s a victim of the times.

Nathan Deal

Task Force Chair Governor of Georgia (2011 - 2019)