Gov. Nathan Deal at the Atlanta premiere of the movie Released on Aug. 23.
Gov. Nathan Deal at the Atlanta premiere of the movie Released on Aug. 23. (John Disney/ALM)

The crowd that packed the Rialto theater Wednesday morning gave Gov. Nathan Deal a standing ovation before he made it to the stage. U.S. Attorney John Horn had to interrupt to finish introducing him. Both appeared in the movie that premiered there—”Released: When does the Sentence End?” —along with a cast of convicted felons and business, clergy and nonprofit leaders working to help inmates prepare for jobs when they return to private life.

Before the screening started, Deal took a moment to talk about the passion of his seven years as governor: the state’s comprehensive criminal justice reform movement. The efforts began with creating accountability courts for nonviolent offenders and continued with education and job training inside prisons to help people avoid returning. Deal said the movement has been among the most successful in the country and because of it “we have 6,000 fewer inmates in our prisons than we would have otherwise.”

More cheers.

Deal said 7 of 10 inmates never finished high school. But with the addition of charter schools in prisons, along with GED programs, graduate rates are rising, he said. Deal recently gave a graduation speech in a prison.

“One of the things we still have to do is educate the public about how important this is,” Deal said. “You cannot claim success with any legal reform until that loop is closed.”

That’s where the film comes in. The U.S. Department of Justice commissioned it to tell the story of “how people released from prison continue to pay for the mistakes of their past.”

A chilling part of the movie shows interviews with people on the street who are asked whether they would hire a convicted felon. Several said they would—as long as it was not a murderer.

In a panel discussion afterward, a convicted murderer talked about how that felt. “What I did when I was 18 doesn’t reflect who I am now,” he said.

He and others who appeared in the movie told their stories of rejection after leaving prison. But they also conveyed a sense of hope, with a few success stories of finally finding work and rebuilding families.

Deal told the story in the movie of Blue Bird Corp., the country’s leading school bus manufacturer. “They said, if we could provide them qualified welders, they didn’t care if they were felons. ‘We need their skills,’” Deal said. The company has employed those who left prison with training and certification for the work.

“I wish we could find more companies” that will take that chance, Deal said. The state is offering them certificates for a “rebuttable liability waiver,” he said.

Most prisoners will be released at some point. “We don’t want them to come back in our system,” Deal said. According to the film, each incidence of recidivism costs the state $118,000. Deal said generally 30 percent are rearrested within a year and 60 percent within three years.

“The facts of life are they will come back,” Deal said. “If we want to keep our society safe, we should all be interested in reducing recidivism.”

Horn announced that his office and other groups working on the effort have formed the Metro Atlanta Reentry Coalition. Frank Fernandez of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation presented a $15,000 grant to the reentry group, meant to support sharing the movie for more screenings. In the process, he mentioned that returning citizens have helped build the Falcons Mercedes-Benz Stadium, opening Saturday.

After moderating the panel discussion, Horn dismissed the crowd with a call to action. “We want this movie to be the start of a conversation,” Horn said. “Go forth and spread the word.”