Georgia Governor Signs Additional Criminal Justice Reforms

Commentary

Georgia Governor Signs Additional Criminal Justice Reforms

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal recently signed SB 367 into law, which builds upon the series of criminal justice reforms that have been enacted in the state over the past several years. Speaking to the bill, Governor Deal said, “The incentives included in this legislation are cost-effective strategies that will increase the number of former offenders returning to the workforce and supporting their families.”

The bill does the following:

Focus on Re-entry:

  • Restores the First Offender Act, which allows certain first-time nonviolent offenders to avoid a public record after the completion of their sentence. The restoration of this act grants judges the discretion to seal court and jail records as well. Additionally, the bill allows judges to seal the criminal records of offenders while they are serving their sentences, which helps increase their chances of obtaining employment upon release.
  • Extends parole eligibility to people serving long sentences for possession of controlled substances as habitual offenders. Prior to this passage, individuals convicted of a possession offense as a habitual offender could face sentences of life without the possibility of parole. SB 367 allows for the possibility of parole after the offender has served 6 years.
  • Prohibits professional licensing boards from refusing to grant licenses because of past felony convictions unless those convictions are directly applicable to the license sought.

Juvenile Justice

  • Restricts secure detention, or solitary confinement, for children under the age of 13 except in cases where the youth exhibits a clear risk to public safety.
  • Creates a disciplinary process for students at schools rather than automatically send them to youth detention centers

Accountability Courts

  • SB 367 expands accountability court authority to include all misdemeanor offenses and DUIs. Prior to the passing of SB 367, authority courts were only used in drug, mental health, and veteran cases. Additionally, the bill creates a “family treatment court” for juvenile cases that affect custody rights. Accountability Courts provide an alternative to incarceration that is centered on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Governor Nathan Deal has been proactively dedicated to criminal justice reform since he took office in 2011 and SB 387 represents the third wave of reforms aimed at reducing the state’s high level of incarceration. Governor Deal began reform in 2012 with the passage HB 1176, which created alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders and revised drug penalties to account for the weight of the drug. In 2013, Georgia passed safety valve legislation that allowed judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for first-time non-violent offenders. Noticeably absent from reform, however, are Georgia’s notoriously harsh mandatory minimum laws for habitual drug offenders. While prior reforms created a graduated scale of possession penalties based on drug weight, Georgia remains one of the harshest states in the nation for drug possession.

Currently, offenders caught in possession of 4-14 grams of heroin are considered traffickers and are subjected to a 5-year mandatory sentence that increases to 10 years for 14-28 grams and 25 years for quantities over 28 grams. Increasing eligibility for parole to this subset of prisoners is certainly effective, but Georgia could also benefit by reclassifying simple possession from a felony charge to a misdemeanor, regardless of the quantity.

Although Georgia’s imprisonment rate is the 9th highest in the nation, efforts to reform criminal justice policies have led to 5% decline in prison population from 2009 to 2014. And while these efforts are laudable, there is of course a lot more work to be done.

Erinn Broadus is the Spring 2016 Criminal Justice Reform Policy Intern.