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May 2, 2012

Georgia joins ever-growing red states enacting sweeping sentencing reforms

As reported in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, headlined "Governor to sign sweeping justice reform bill," the "way Georgia punishes thousands of nonviolent offenders will forever change when Gov. Nathan Deal signs landmark legislation Wednesday."  Here is more:

Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he will also sign an executive order continuing the work of a special council that studied the state's prison system and recommended sweeping changes to control unimpeded growth in prison spending. The reforms in House Bill 1176, to be signed at a ceremony at the Capitol, are projected to save taxpayers $264 million over the next five years....

Years ago, Georgia was among the states leading the nation in tough-on-crime sentencing laws.  But Georgia now joins a host of other states -- including Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina -- that have enacted legislation to address soaring prison spending that was doing little to reform offenders.  The legislation enjoyed extraordinary bipartisan support, with the final version being approved unanimously by both the House and Senate.

The sentencing reform package, which takes effect July 1, is part of a broader criminal justice initiative pushed by Deal.  The Legislature also approved the governor's recommendation to quintuple funding to $10 million for "accountability courts" that require defendants to work, seek treatment and stay sober.

"As we reserve more of our expensive [prison] bed space for truly dangerous criminals [we] free up revenue to deal with those who are not necessarily dangerous but are in many ways in trouble because of various addictions," Deal said.  "Our system is feeding on itself with our recidivism rate being as high as it is.  We have the opportunity now to make a difference in the lives of future generations of Georgians."

Deal said he will ask the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, comprised of lawmakers, lawyers, judges and other officials, to continue its work and focus on getting inmates ready to be contributing members of society before they leave prison....  The special council is also expected to be called on to address two initiatives the Legislature did not take up this year -- decriminalizing many of the state's traffic offenses and allowing "safety valves" for some mandatory minimum sentences.

Georgia criminalizes minor traffic offenses -- more than 2 million a year -- while most other states treat them as violations with a fine as the penalty, the council said in a November report.... The special council also suggested judges should be allowed to depart from minimum mandatory prison sentences, such as those for drug trafficking.  A number of states, including Connecticut, Florida and Maine, have "safety valves" for various drug and habitual violator offenses.

"In Georgia, it's an issue that's not going to go away," said State Bar of Georgia President Ken Shigley, a member of the special council. "To have a one-size-fits-all sentence for crimes that can be so different in terms of the offense and the offender doesn't always serve the best interests of justice."

Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the think tank that strongly supported H.B. 1176, predicted the process will take years.  Safety valves, he said, could help inmates with their transitions back into society.  "As a private citizen, I would feel a whole lot better if maybe we cut a few months off their sentence, put them in a half-way house, provide them some supervision, some training and if they're not ready yet, pull them back into prison."

State Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, who sponsored the sentencing reform bill, said the law reflects a new "smart on crime" approach in Georgia.  "More non-violent offenders will be directed toward drug courts and rehabilitation where that is possible, and that will reserve more prison beds for violent offenders who need to be kept away," he said.  "Public safety is enhanced and taxpayer money is saved."

House Bill 1176, to be signed into law today, would:

  • Create new categories of punishment for drug possession crimes, with less severe penalties for those found with small amounts.
  • Increase the felony threshold for shoplifting from $300 to $500 and for most other theft crimes to $1,500.
  • Create three categories for burglaries, with more severe punishment for break-ins of dwellings by burglars who are armed and cause physical harm to a resident, with the least severe penalties for those who break into unoccupied structures or buildings.
  • Create degrees of forgery offenses, with graduated punishment for the type of offense and amount of money involved.

May 2, 2012 at 12:26 PM | Permalink

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Comments

The bill also gets rid of the statute of limitations for some of the people who need them most- those accused of child molestation, a charge with a very high false conviction rate, particularly for defendants charged with crimes that are said to have occured long ago in the past. There is no way this can be called "right on crime". I hope the governer gets a change of heart and vetos this terrible bill.

Posted by: Hercule Poirot | May 2, 2012 6:53:38 PM

personaly i think changing the statue of limitations AFTER THE FACT is illegal and unconstutional! I agree you the state can certainly say from THIS day forward the statue of limitatiosn for "x" crime is GONE or even 10 or 20 years. BUT it is NOT LEGAL to do it for somethign that has ALREADY HAPPENED! kind of defeats the whole damn purpose of the SOL in the first damn place and to me is legal grounds to remove whatever idiot came up with the ideal.

Posted by: rodsmith | May 3, 2012 11:49:03 AM

In regards to the person with the previous comment this bill is a very good idea considering the fine state of Georgia decided to build 56 new prisons but they had to fill them so they started putting non-violent drug offenders and people that jaywalk in prison for ten years I'm from Oklahoma and I have never heard of shit that Georgia does to people with minor traffic offenses and non violent drug offenders. My brother recently got 15 years for being with a guy that was manufacturing meth. The guy even told the judge and police that my brother had nothing to do with it but they charged him all the same. And now Georgia has no where to put the rapists, murderers and thieves. Hopefully this bill helps my brother. I think Georgia should have probably done this a long time ago. I think drug court and drug rehab would be a good thing to send prisoners to and then giving them probation instead of locking them up and throwing away the key. When my brother got arrested he was asleep in the guys truck so I don't know how they had grounds to arrest him much less sentence him to fifteen years But I guess it's just odd to me since I'm from from ok and the legal system is just a bit more logical here. But that's my two cents but if I was from Georgia I would rather release non violent offenders on probation and send them to drug rehab then having it overflowing with them and not have anywhere to place rapists, murderers and thieves but yea sure keep throwing people in prison for speeding and non violent offenses

Posted by: Kc | May 8, 2012 9:36:51 PM

I HAVE A SON WHO HAS A SIMILAR CHARGE. I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW THE PERSON TO CONTACT SO THAT I MAY RECEIVE THE SPECIFICS OF THIS BILL. WOULD SOMEONE WHO MAY READ THIS PLEASE CONTACT ME ABOUT THIS, I KNEW GOD HAS HIS BACK. THIS IS THE FIRST I'VE HEARD OF THIS !

Posted by: PATRICIA WORRIELS | Oct 10, 2012 7:23:17 PM

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