By Mike Klein
Governor Nathan Deal on Thursday signed an adult criminal justice reform bill that revises minimum mandatory sentencing laws, expands the state’s right to evidence appeals and creates a new Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Commission that will remain on-the-watch until 2023. In sum, the state will continue to consider criminal justice best practices for another ten years.
The House Bill 349 signing ceremony was held in Marietta where Deal said, “When I first became Governor I was concerned about something that I was told Republicans shouldn’t really be concerned about and that was the fact that we were the tenth largest state in population but that we had the fourth largest prison population.
“We had had a ‘tough on crime’ stance in this state for many years,” the Governor told some 225 Marietta Kiwanis members, “not that it was inappropriate but in hindsight I felt it was not achieving the results that we wanted.” (Watch Deal’s remarks on the Foundation YouTube channel).
Two years ago Deal and the General Assembly created a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform that paved the way for last year’s major overhaul of adult criminal justice policies. The door was opened to alternative courts and other ideas that potentially reduce incarceration for non-violent offenders but enable the state to always securely lock away truly violent offenders.
The legislation that Governor Deal signed Thursday revises mandatory minimum sentencing options for some drug cases when the judge believes circumstances do not warrant imposition of the more severe mandatory minimum sentence. HB 349 also gives judges leeway to impose a lesser sentence in sexual offense and serious violence cases when prosecutors and defense counsel agree circumstances do not warrant the more severe mandatory minimum sentence.
House Bill 349 also changes state law that currently requires prosecutors to prove a defendant “knowingly” trafficked drugs of a specific type and weight. After July 1, the date on which the bill takes effect, police and prosecutors will not be required to prove that a drug trafficking defendant knew the weight of illegal drugs. This new drug trafficking prosecution law will then become consistent with simple possession drug laws that passed the General Assembly last year.
On the question of evidence appeals, prosecutors will be allowed a direct appeal to the Court of Appeals of Georgia or the state Supreme Court if a lower court excludes prosecutorial evidence during pre-trial proceedings. This section of HB 349 was not included in the December 2012 Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommendations. Indeed, it was highly emphasized by the state’s district attorneys and it was included after fairly intense back-and-forth negotiations.
“This bill gives us the ability as prosecutors, when we believe the court has incorrectly ruled on an evidentiary issue, to then take that to the appellate court and have it reviewed,” said Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.
Some opponents said in legislative hearings that expanded evidence appeals might delay speedy trials. “I don’t believe that’s going to be a huge issue,” Spahos said during an interview with the Foundation. “I don’t believe it’s going to create a large floodgate of appellate cases or interfere with speedy trials.” (Watch this interview on the Foundation YouTube channel.)
Deal will sign juvenile justice reform legislation next week. Like its earlier adult justice system cousin, HB 242 emphasizes community-based local alternative resources for juveniles who are not a publsafety threat, underscores the intent to incarcerate violent juveniles and it recreates the state’s antiquated juvenile civil code, especially as it pertains to children in need of services, adoption, dependency cases, parental rights and dozens of other juvenile non-criminal issues.
The new Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Commission will consist of 15 members whose names have not been announced by the Governor’s Office. The Commission will be required to submit adult and juvenile justice systems analysis to the Governor’s Office and the General Assembly not less than once every two years.