Criminal Justice Reform Bill is Just a Starting Point

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Public Policy Forum Editor

Criminal justice reform legislation introduced this week contains highly anticipated alternatives to incarceration such as expanded drug treatment courts, along with probation and parole revisions, and modifications to burglary, forgery and theft statues.  We knew that was coming.

Some sections of House Bill 1176 that were not expected include extending the statute of limitations on prosecution of child abuse cases – this was not a specific focus of work done last year by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform — and religious clergy might well be surprised to learn they are mentioned in the criminal justice reform conversation.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office already signaled the current bill is not good enough. “It doesn’t achieve exactly what we wanted,” said press secretary Stephanie Mayfield.  “One of our main things is to spend taxpayer dollars wisely. The initial bill isn’t something in its current form that we think does that to its best ability but again, it’s in the initial stages.  It is a starting point.”  The legislation was submitted without a fiscal note.

HB 1176 will be vetted by a joint committee of senators and representatives.  It can be amended in hearings.  The bill is not hogtied by the Day 30 Crossover rule next Wednesday.  The first committee meeting could occur toward the end of this week, but none is currently announced.

There are no child abuse recommendations in the Special Council final report and definitely no members of the clergy.  The bill states “a member of the clergy shall not be required to report child abuse received solely from a perpetrator of the child abuse through confession or other similar communication required to be kept confidential under church doctrine or practice.”

HB 1176 also states, “When a clergy member receives information about child abuse from any source, the clergy member shall comply with reporting requirements … even though the clergy member may have also received a report of child abuse from the confession of the perpetrator.”

The consensus of people we spoke with on background is that the legislation submitted Monday needs work so what we see now is not likely to be what we will see later.  Here are comparisons of some but not all Special Council recommendations and the proposed HB 1176 legislation:

Drug and Mental Health Courts: The Council recommended expansion of alternative treatment courts.  The bill discusses how to certify existing drug courts, create new ones, and also how to pay for their staffing and associated costs.  State funds, other public funds, federal grants and even donated dollars could help defray drug and mental health court costs.  Risk and needs assessment of offenders are emphasized in language that pertains to drug and mental health courts.  Gov. Deal included millions of dollars to expand drug courts in his fiscal 2013 budget.

Drug Crimes: Some drug crimes would be prosecuted based on the types of narcotics and the weight of the seized evidence.  This approach would make a distinction between personal users whose problems are addiction and traffickers who are dealing narcotics.  The Council approach was adopted in the legislation.  Some prosecutors are skeptical about changes to drug laws.

Mandatory Minimum Safety Valve: The Council recommended that judges be allowed to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in some drug trafficking cases, with the court required to state the circumstances and the reasons for its decision.  This idea is not included in HR 1176.

Theft, Forgery and Burglary: The Council recommended and the legislation contains new felony thresholds in these three categories. To cite one example, the Council proposed an increase in the felony shoplifting level from $300 to $750.  The bill as proposed says theft valued at less than $1,000 would be considered a misdemeanor.  Several burglary categories would make distinctions between residential and other kinds of burglaries, and even time of day.

Rape Laws: The legislation would remove the words “prosecution for the crime of forcible rape must be commenced within 15 years after the commission of the crime” from current state code.   There was no Council recommendation about changes to rape prosecution laws.  Later, the bill says cruelty to children, rape, aggravated sodomy, child molestation, enticing a child for indecent purposes and incest could be prosecuted at any time when the child is under 16 years old on the date of the violation.

Personal Criminal Records: HB 1176 contains extensive discussion about restriction of access to and disclosure of individual criminal history records.  Again, the Council made no recommendations.

Performance Incentive Pilot Projects: Special Council members proposed that the state and up to 10 local communities create pilot projects to reduce recidivism.  Communities that returned fewer people to state prisons would be able to receive a share of state dollars not spent on incarceration.  Performance incentive pilot projects are not included in HB 1176.  However, this idea might not require legislation and could possibly be done administratively.

Pre-Sentence Risk Assessment: The Council emphasized risk assessment. Legislation would create a five-year window beginning in January, 2013 to start and assess pilot projects.  If the concept proves successful a statewide model would be created in July, 2018.  The focus would be on “the lowest risk, prison bound, nonviolent drug and property defendants.”

Parole and Probation: The Council proposed and the legislation includes several ideas to improve supervision of offenders in the community.  Mandatory supervision would be required for all offenders who serve their maximum prison sentence.   Earned compliance credits would allow parolees and probationers to reduce their supervision time when they satisfy all terms of their supervision.  Parole and probation officers would be permitted to impose additional sanctions on individuals who violate the terms of their supervision. These ideas are aimed at reducing recidivism.

Electronic Surveillance: Eligible probationers – the state has 156,000 – and eligible parolees – the state has 22,000 — would increasingly find themselves tethered to electronic surveillance, including global positioning satellite systems.  Alternative methods of tracking non-violent, low-risk probationers and parolees were emphasized by the Council and included in the legislation.

Minor Traffic Offenses: The Council proposed decriminalizing minor traffic offenses that could be satisfied by paying a fine.  The rationale was it would relieve pressure on the courts so judges could concentrate on more significant cases.  This idea is not in the bill.

The criminal justice reform conversation remains fluid.  It would not be surprising if stakeholders move ahead on areas where they agree and defer other decisions until next year.

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