New GCO Report: Fortifying Pathways

Report Cover - Fortifying Pathways

While education plays a tremendous role in shaping individual life outcomes, the number of students in Georgia who do not advance beyond K-12 remains astronomically high. Over 1 in 5 young adults in Georgia are not attending school, not working, and have no degree beyond high school. Additionally, in 2014, more than 33,000 students did not graduate. Of those who go on to college, nearly 40 percent do not finish in four years.

To promote solutions that will give more Georgians a real chance to prosper, GCO convened a working group of education professionals as part of the College and Career Pathways Initiative. Comprised of K-12, postsecondary, and local business leaders, the group sought to contextualize barriers faced by students, parents, and schools of varying circumstances across the state.

Through a series of nine meetings, the group not only considered the academic needs of readiness, such as rigorous learning standards, and systemic barriers, such as recruiting and preparing quality teachers, the group also considered the philosophical underpinnings of readiness such as the relationship between education and fulfilling one’s purpose in life.

The following report serves as an overview of the themes and key issues covered by GCO’s College and Career Pathways working group. Major themes include the importance for Georgia to:

  • Move away from big policy as a means of education reform
  • Empower schools to take the reins of innovation and reform
  • Help students develop healthy habits through strong relational ties

Through the lens of the themes described above, GCO plans to publish over the coming months a series of reports addressing key issues impacting college and career readiness in Georgia. These issues include:

  • Measuring noncognitive variables in school and building small-scale relationships
  • Improving accountability measures in Georgia’s schools
  • Education reimagined through blended learning models
  • Increasing experimentation and creativity in teacher preparation: Creating “the missing institution”

To read the full report, click here: Fortifying Pathways: Themes to Guide College and Career Readiness in Georgia

Gov. Deal “Banned the Box” in Georgia

Happy Employee

It’s official. Governor Nathan Deal signed an executive order on February 23rd to “ban the box” on applications for state employment in Georgia. This order will remove the question about felony convictions from the initial job application and postpone it to a later point in the hiring process. This policy is intended to provide those with a criminal record a fair shot at showing employers why they are the best candidate for a job without being automatically screened from the hiring process simply because they have a felony conviction.

The Governor laid out specific hiring practices that government entities of the State of Georgia shall follow:

  1. Prohibit the use of a criminal record as an automatic bar to employment.
  2. Prevent the use of an application form that inappropriately excludes and discriminates against qualified job applicants.
  3. Promote the accurate use and interpretation of a criminal record.
  4. Provide qualified applicants with the opportunity to discuss any inaccuracies, contest the content and relevance of a criminal record, and provide information that demonstrates rehabilitation.
  5. Require initial disclosure on applications for sensitive governmental positions in which a criminal history would be an immediate disqualification.

Georgia is joining thirteen other states who have implemented a fair hiring policy and is the first state in the South to do so. This policy will help to remove a barrier to employment for those with a criminal record by opening up more job opportunities for which motivated returning citizens may be qualified. The state is setting the example for how county, city, and private employers could aid people leaving prison in the reintegration process by giving them a fair shot at jobs for which they are good candidates.

Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) applauds the important step taken by the Governor to “ban the box” as well as the efforts of all those who have been involved in working to increase employment opportunities for returning citizens in Georgia. In December 2013, GCO published a report recommending that the state “ban the box” and set the example for private employers by hiring and maintaining qualified returning citizens as employees. This recent executive order is the first step in seeing this fulfilled.

In addition, GCO is pleased to see several other recommendations from our December 2013 report currently being considered by the General Assembly or state agencies. These recommendations include offering a State Work Opportunity Tax Credit to incentivize employers to hire returning citizens, lifting professional license restrictions for those with felony convictions, and ensuring identification is secured prior to a person’s release from prison.

As Georgia continues to take positive steps forward in removing barriers to opportunity among those involved with the criminal justice system, the public should begin to see more examples of returning citizens who are not only making it in society, but flourishing.

Criminal Justice Reform Council Releases New Report – Focus on Reentry

Scales of Justice

The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform (CJRC) released their latest report this past Friday (Feb. 6th) with recommendations aimed to increase public safety, hold offenders accountable, and reduce recidivism in our state. This is the fourth consecutive report that the CJRC has produced since 2011 after being tasked by the Governor and the General Assembly to develop a smarter, evidence-based approach to criminal justice in our state.

As reflected in the report, a major focus of the CJRC and the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry (GOTSR) in 2014 was to develop a comprehensive approach to reentry so that every person leaving prison has the tools and support they need to succeed in the community.

To aid in the development of this approach, the Council and GOTSR partnered with the Michigan-based Center for Justice Innovation and reentry expert Dennis Schrantz to produce the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative (GA-PRI). The GA-PRI is a five-year plan based largely on the evidence-based policies practices laid out in the 2005 Council of State Governments’ Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council and the 2008 National Institute of Corrections’ Transition from Prison to the Community (TPC) Reentry Handbook, but tailored specifically to meet Georgia’s reentry needs.

Georgia’s reentry team pursued federal funding to implement the GA-PRI in 2014, highlighting its “one strategy, one plan” philosophy that aims to unify planning and implementation of evidence-based practices among agencies and stakeholders. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) welcomed the smart plan and awarded Georgia four grants which totaled $6 million. Georgia’s strategy is now being featured by the BJA at training events across the county.

Details and recommendations related to the GA-PRI can be viewed in this report, as well as the complete three-year implementation plan which is located in the addendum.

Other key pieces of the report include recommendations in the following areas:

Adult System

  • Restore the intent of the Georgia’s First Offender Act
  • Improve pre-trial diversion alternatives for certain offenders
  • Extend parole eligibility for certain qualified nonviolent, recidivist drug offenders
  • Extend sentences for offenders whose probation has been revoked and who wish to participate in a felony accountability court program

Juvenile Justice System

  • Improve the collecting and sharing of electronic data throughout the juvenile justice system

Misdemeanor Probation System

  • Address deficiencies and improve transparency and fairness in misdemeanor probation services

At GCO, we are particularly happy to see the following recommendations in the CJRC’s report which aim to increase employment opportunities for returning citizens:

  • Establish licensing policies that ensure returning citizens have appropriate opportunities for licensing
  • Explore opportunities for a state work opportunity tax credit to incentivize offering employment to returning citizens
  • Revamp prison work details to provide experience that meets the requirements of Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) so technical college credits can be awarded for work experience gained on prison details
  • Explore resources available to purchase and deploy a Department of Driver Services (DDS) mobile unit to process state IDs at state correctional facilities


Read the full report here and visit the newly created website for the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry.



Celebrating Thirty Years of Successful Reintegration

Successful reentry for those coming home from prison is a concept that is not easily defined.

Most often, success is defined in terms of low recidivism – that is, fewer people who return to prison within three years of their release. However, simply measuring successful reentry in terms of recidivism does not present a complete picture of what it means to successfully reintegrate. There is much more to it than a person simply not ending up back in prison. To gain a more complete picture of what it means to successfully reintegrate into society – into a community, a family, and a faith – it is helpful to a look at a real-life example of someone who has done it.

Tony Kitchens - Reentry Celebration

Meet Tony Kitchens – a husband, father, son, and brother – who spent 12 years behind bars in Georgia during the 1970s and 1980s. Today, Tony is an Evangelism Catalyst with the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and has consulted with the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support, and Reentry (GOTSR).

He is celebrating thirty years of successful reintegration this January 2015 – a journey which he says is still continuing to this day.

In honor of Tony’s thirty years of successful reintegration, Walker Faith and Character Based Prison in Northwest Georgia held a Reentry Celebration for him on January 9, 2015. The celebration provided the opportunity for family, friends, coworkers, non-profit leaders, Department of Corrections (DOC) staff, the residents of Walker and the Governor’s Office to recognize Tony for his successful journey of navigating reentry to reintegration; it also provided Tony a wonderful opportunity to give current inmates a picture of what is possible for their lives.

Tony and Inmate

Tony – who was once an inmate at Walker State Prison – brings a unique perspective that carries a lot of weight among the men at Walker. He has the ability to address them as one who was once in their shoes; one who mopped the same floors they now mop and slept in the same cells they sleep in.

The Reentry Celebration took place in the prison cafeteria – a large space filled with hundreds of inmates dressed in white uniforms and nearly fifty guests. Above the stage hung large banners with seals from various state agencies, along with canvases painted by the inmates that included the seal of Walker Faith and Character Based Prison, the North American Mission Board LoveLoud logo, and a creative rendering of a line Tony is often heard quoting:

“I keep the penitentiary in my rear view and what lies ahead in my pre-view.”

Prison in My Rearview

A quartet comprised of inmates from Walker opened the celebration by singing the national anthem. The performance astounded everyone, including Jay Neal, Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support, and Reentry (GOTSR), who commented that Super Bowls do not have performers who sing as well as they did. This performance was followed by an introduction of the speakers and a powerful recitation of the “Brothers Creed” in which hundreds of inmates pledged to live exemplary lives of character while in prison and once they are released into the community.

Jay Neal followed as the first of a several speakers who would present at the event. Neal spoke about the first step required for successful reintegration, which is having accountability in one’s life. He reflected on his own experience as a young man and learning the need to have accountability in place before entering the pastorate. He encouraged the inmates in attendance to take this same measure in their own lives, as it is an important aspect of living a life of good character.

Accountable, Possible, Sustainable

The next speaker, Tony Lowden, a pastor and Project Coordinator for the Prison In-Reach Grant for the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative (GA-PRI), built upon the principle of accountability and spoke about possibility. He recalled the biblical figure David and his calling to be a king, explaining that David had to first experience time hiding from his enemies in the Adullam Cave before he ascended to the throne. He paralleled this experience to inmates’ time in prison, calling it their “Adullam Cave,” and encouraged them to dream of being who they are meant to be – leaders of their families and communities.

Following Mr. Lowden, one of the inmates from the quartet sung R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” while another played the piano. The performance inspired the entire room and several shouts of approval could be heard from among the hundreds of inmates sitting in attendance.

Tony's Family

Brenda McGowan, Southeast Regional Director for Prison Fellowship, came on deck third and highlighted the importance of sustainability for successful reintegration. Touching on the life of Chuck Colson and Tony Kitchens, a Colson scholar, she discussed how a transformed life is the only way a person can face the difficulties of reintegration without losing hope.

Last of all, Tony Kitchens delivered the keynote address which tied the entire message together. He drove home the point that reentry is a destination whereas reintegration is a journey. He compared reintegration to the game of baseball and explained that it is not ultimately about hitting a home run; rather, it is a day-by-day process that is slow and much more like advancing from one base to the next. First base is becoming accountable, second base is seeing and believing what is possible, and third base is sustaining that vision through a spiritual transformation of the mind and heart.

“Reentry is a destination whereas reintegration is a journey.”

Grandfather Clock

Upon finishing, Tony received a standing ovation. He was presented with a personal letter from Governor Nathan Deal commending him for his excellent example for returning citizens and Georgians at large. Tony was also presented with a beautifully crafted grandfather clock that a group of inmates made out of recycled material from Walker prison – an excellent representation of Tony’s life in the way he has “redeemed the time” and used his gifts well in the community. The clock reads, “Celebrating 30 Years Free” on the front glass pane.

It was clear that the inmates at Walker were glad to see someone who is overcoming the collateral consequences of incarceration. Tony’s life serves as a powerful testimony to the redemption that is possible for returning citizens, and his message gives them hope that they can experience the same.


New GCO Report: A High Price to Pay

GCO’s latest report provides solutions that aim to minimize the role debt has in driving recidivism rates.

Offenders often leave prison owing tens of thousands of dollars in debt, creating serious obstacles to a successful reentry. The state expects returning offenders to pay these debts, though many struggle to simply find a job and a place to live.

Debt Report Cover

Studies have shown average debt amounts in certain jurisdictions in the U.S. to be as high as $20,000 in child support arrears and between $500 and $2,000 in offense-related debt. Carrying an onerous amount of debt and having to immediately repay it puts tremendous financial pressure on recently released offenders. They face the threat of having their driver’s license suspended, having their wages garnished, and being re-incarcerated for failing to pay their obligations. These sanctions can discourage them from seeking legitimate employment and drive them to participate in the underground economy, leading them on a pathway back to prison.

Today, Georgia Center for Opportunity released a report titled A High Price to Pay: Recommendations for Minimizing Debt’s Role in Driving Recidivism Rates, which outlines several steps the state can take to encourage returning citizens to pay current obligations and repay debts in a realistic manner. Such action should result in more money going to support children and victims and result in fewer people ending up back behind bars.

 The report’s recommendations include:

  • Identify offenders with child support involvement upon entry to prison
  • Provide child support information and services to parents during their incarceration
  • Provide a 90-day grace period before indigent returning citizens have to pay their obligations and repay debts to ease the transition phase
  • Limit the amount of wages to be garnished by the state
  • Forgive fines, fees, and surcharges owed to the state for consistent payments of child support and restitution
  • Reinstate driver’s licenses that were suspended for non-payment of child support
  • Forgive arrears and interest owed to the state for a set number of consecutive payments of current child support***
  • Designate a single agency to track and consolidate returning citizens’ debts

GCO will post a series of blogs that highlight different sections of the report, including the various factors that cause offenders to accrue debt, the effect debt can have in driving recidivism rates, and an in-depth look at the recommended policies.

Read the full report: A High Price to Pay: Recommendations for Minimizing Debt’s Role in Driving Recidivism Rates


***Edit to the report: May 6, 2015

At the time of writing the report, the author was unaware that Georgia already has a detailed debt reduction program in place to assist indigent non-custodial parents who owe arrears to the state. The Division of Child Support Services’ (DCSS) State Debt Reduction Program (SDRP) provides non-custodial parents the ability to have a significant percentage of their state-owed arrears reduced if an agent determines that:

(1) “Good cause” existed for the nonpayment of the public assistance debt;

(2) Repayment or enforcement of the debt would result in substantial and unreasonable hardship for the parent owing the debt;

(3) The non-custodial parent is currently unable to pay the debt;

(4) The non-custodial parent is making regular payments of current child support, regardless of the amount.

The amount that eligible non-custodial parents can have their arrears reduced depends upon the amount they owe. Those with a greater amount of arrears owed to the state are eligible to have a greater percentage reduced (with the exception of those who owe less than $100, who can have their entire state-owed arrears balance waived). For example, non-custodial parents with state-owed arrears balances of $9,000 or greater can have their arrears waved or reduced by 75 percent, so long as they pay the remaining 25 percent owed in a lump sum payment or in 24 monthly installments.[i]

While Georgia has a detailed debt reduction program in place, it appears that the participation in the program is limited. In 2014, only 349 out of the 354,427 total non-custodial parents ordered to pay child support in Georgia entered into the plan, based on the 30 DCSS offices that reported.[ii]* More should be done to enroll struggling returning citizens with child support arrears owed to the state into the program. One way the state can do this is by promoting it within the Fatherhood Program and Child Support Problem Solving Courts (PSCs), which returning citizens will be likely to participate in.


[i] Division of Child Support Services, “State Debt Reduction Guidelines,” Employee Reference Guide – Standard Operating Procedure 251, Email Release May 24, 2013.

[ii] Erica Thornton, Manager of the Policy and Paternity Unit, Division of Child Support Services, Georgia Department of Human Services, email message to author, February 3, 2015; Georgia Department of Human Services, “Division of Child Support Services: Fact Sheet,” Revised November 2014.

*While not all 354,427 non-custodial parents ordered to pay child support in Georgia owe arrears to the state, the large figure suggests that there may be numerous non-custodial parents (particularly those reentering society from prison) who do (or should) qualify for the program, but are currently being overlooked.




Felony Conviction, Barrier to Obtaining Professional License

Barber Shop

Professional License Restrictions

Those who have “been convicted of any felony or of any crime involving moral turpitude in the courts of this state or any other state, territory, or country” are subject to having their application denied on account of their conviction.[i] This restriction severely curtails the number of professions available to people coming out of prison, many of which offer considerable promise for returning citizens given the vocational training they received in prison.

As it stands now, nearly 80 professions are off-limits to those with a felony conviction, including becoming a barber, cosmetologist, electrical contractor, plumber, conditioned air contractor, auctioneer, utility contractor, registered trade sanitarian, and scrap metal processor, among others.[ii]

Lift Restrictions and Open-Up Job Opportunities

In order to open-up a greater range of professions for returning citizens, the state of Georgia should lift blanket restrictions on professional licenses. Some of the professions most suitable to returning citizens’ skillsets are currently inaccessible to them because they are barred from acquiring a license in those professions. These blanket restrictions should be replaced with reasonable criteria for determining whether a given profession is suitable for a person given his or her criminal history.

As is the case for determining whether any particular job is suitable for a person given his or her felony conviction, professional licensing boards should consider the following factors in determining whether the granting of a license is appropriate:

  • The nature of the crime committed and its relation to the license sought
  • The time elapsed since the crime
  • The applicant’s age at the time of the crime
  • The evidence that the applicant has been rehabilitated[iii]

By using these criteria, professional licensing boards can eliminate unreasonable licensing restrictions while ensuring that public safety is protected. A person might be restricted from obtaining a license in one profession due to the nature of his or her crime, but prove to be an excellent candidate for receiving a license in numerous other professions where his or her crime is unrelated. These decisions must always be determined on a case-by-case basis, just as they are for applicants without a felony conviction.

A Look at Other States

Many states are already working toward increasing opportunities for those with felony convictions to obtain professional licenses. Currently, “21 states have standards that require a ‘direct,’ ‘rational,’ or ‘reasonable’ relationship between the license sought and the applicant’s criminal history to justify the agency’s denial of a license.”[iv]

  • Colorado law mandates that a felony conviction or other offense involving “moral turpitude” cannot, in and of itself, prevent a person from applying for and receiving an occupational license.[v]
  • New Mexico only allows occupational licensing authorities to disqualify applicants from felony or misdemeanor convictions involving “moral turpitude” if they are directly related to the position or license sought.[vi]
  • Connecticut requires a state agency to first consider the relationship between the offense and the job, the applicant’s post-conviction rehabilitation, and the time elapsed since conviction and release before determining a person is not suitable for a license.[vii]
  • Louisiana forbids licensing agencies from disqualifying a person from obtaining a license or practicing a trade solely because of a prior criminal record, unless the conviction directly relates to the specific occupation. In the event the applicant is denied because of a conviction, the reason for the decision must be made explicit in writing.[viii]


Enabling people with felony convictions to acquire professional licenses in Georgia would benefit a variety of stakeholders. Not only would it give returning citizens greater access to a variety of occupations and enable them to support themselves and their families, it would also make the most of current job-training programs offered in state prisons, create opportunities for expansion and partnership with technical schools, and enable offenders to maximize their time in prison and develop transferable job skills.  Together, these advantages would work to reduce recidivism, utilize taxpayer dollars more efficiently, and promote public safety in Georgia.


Image credit: Wrightsville Beach Plumbing (featured image) and Mahanomi Health and Beauty Care Info

[i] O.C.G.A. § 43-1-19; italics added.

[ii] O.C.G.A. §§ 43-1 to 43-51.

[iii] Legal Action Center, “Recommended Key Provisions,” para. 6, Key%20Provisions%20-%20Standards.pdf.

[iv] Legal Action Center, “Standards for Hiring People with Criminal Records,” Advocacy Toolkits to Combat Legal Barriers Facing Individuals with Criminal Records, accessed November 29, 2013, para. 8,

[v] Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-5-101; Legal Action Center, “Overview of State Laws that Ban Discrimination by Employers,” 2,

[vi] Legal Action Center, “Overview of State Laws,” 3.

[vii] Ibid., 1.

[viii] La. Rev. Stat. § 37:2950.


This post was adapted from Georgia Center for Opportunity’s December 2013 report titled Increasing Employment Opportunities for Ex-Offenders.