New Criminal Justice Reform Bill Expected Within Days

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Georgia Public Policy Forum Editor

The next version of criminal justice reform legislation should look more like last year’s special council recommendations without extra window dressing that somehow worked its way into HR 1176.   A new bill could be ready later this week or early next week.  Then the rush starts anew because the General Assembly is trying to complete its business before the month ends.

Four months have passed since Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommendations and nearly two weeks since eight hours of hearings on the original HR 1176.  The basic premise behind this bill is that Georgia should adopt alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders.

One area to look at closely will be whether judges would have sole discretion or whether judges and prosecutors together would decide which drug users are eligible for drug court treatment programs.  District attorneys have been adamant that they want a voice in those decisions.

Also, watch to see whether an extensive section about child abuse laws survives the cut; it was not part of the Special Council’s work.  And a paragraph about what clergy is required to report or not report after a parishioner confesses to a crime could be on the chopping block.

It is almost certain Georgia will expand weight-based drug prosecutions.  The Special Council said members “discussed creating a simple possession for cocaine and methamphetamine below a specific amount such as 1 gram.”  About three dozen states have already adopted some version of this, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida.

One example from the original HR 1176 proposes to create simple possession categories of illegal drugs that weigh less than one gram, at least one gram but less than four grams, at least four grams but less than 28 grams and 28 or more grams.

Sentencing ranges could change.  First offense convictions for simple possession of one gram of solid drugs or one milliliter of liquid drugs would carry a one-to-five year sentence, down from two-to-15 years but Georgia’s new sentences would still be stricter than in some other states.

South Carolina created probation and suspended sentence options for first and second drug possession offenses, except trafficking.  Kentucky modified first degree possession for personal use to a three-year maximum sentence rather than five.   Kentucky reforms that were enacted by last year’s legislature make a specific distinction between drug users and drug traffickers.

Arkansas enacted weight-based prosecutions for personal use possession ranging from just a few grams to trafficking possession of drugs that weigh several hundred pounds.  Arkansas also equalized penalties to erase disparities in crack cocaine and powder cocaine possession.

Expansion of weight-based prosecutions absolutely would have some impact on seven Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime labs that process evidence for 25,000 felony narcotics cases per year.  GBI director Vernon Keenan told legislators the labs typically have a 5,000 case backlog which means evidence has been waiting to be analyzed for at least 45 days.

The council report said GBI drug analysis costs might increase by $1-to-$1.3 million per year.  But when Keenan testified at a State Capitol hearing he cited closer to $5 million more for new staffing and equipment.  “That’s also provided we can hire all the scientists,” Keenan said.

Atlanta attorney Jack Martin had a hard time believing the anticipated cost projection.  “I would just ask you to find out, where does that come from?” said Martin, who spoke on behalf of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  Martin said any new costs “would be chump change (compared to) what we’re talking about here and the savings we would be getting.”

Responding to an inquiry, this week a GBI spokesperson said increased costs were reviewed again since director Keenan’s testimony.   The new estimate is that 17 new scientists would cost $1.1 million per year and the bureau would need a $1.2 million capital expenditure for new equipment to handle testing outlined in the original HR 1176.

There also has been some concern that state crime lab backlogs might increase the time before cases reach trial.  Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, who is president of the Georgia District Attorneys Association, said he prefers changes to sentencing options over the expansion of weight-based drug prosecutions.

“Having said that, I want to make it very clear drugs are not always a victimless crime,” McDade testified.  “I want to be very careful in making certain that you understand there could be a perception created if we went to a sentencing model that was perceived as being less stringent or always inviting only a probationary type of sentence that it would lose its deterrent effect.

“Most prosecutions for homicide in my circuit are driven by drugs,” McDade added. “Most violent crimes that I prosecute are drug-involved.  Just because a person possesses a drug it’s rarely a victimless crime.”  Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head also testified he prefers graduated sentencing options rather than the adoption of new weight-based drug prosecution.

Rep. Rich Golick is co-chair of the House – Senate special committee that is drafting HR 1176 and its revisions. The Smyrna legislator has spoken about the need to simplify the legislation and during the recent State Capitol hearing he seemed open to enhanced sentencing options.

“Why not do it just through the sentencing range?” Golick asked after he listed to testimony for and against weight-based prosecutions.  “It’s not simple but if we can simplify it somewhat by getting away from weight and getting toward the same goal but through a less complicated system that focuses just on the sentencing range, why not?”

(Learn more!  Click here to read Principles of Effective State Sentencing and Corrections Policy, published last August by the National Conference on State Legislatures.)

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