Second Version of Criminal Justice Reform Is Better Law

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation Forum

The second version of criminal justice reform legislation is better than its earlier cousin because of what the bill does not include – hundreds of lines of rules and regulations about how to run the state probation and parole programs.

The absence of a legislative mandate means there would be more flexibility to expand programs that work and jettison those that are found to be wanting.  One example is electronic monitoring which is being successfully developed inside the state parole program.

The House was expected to debate and approve the criminal justice reform substitute bill today.  It would firmly commit Georgia to incarceration alternatives for non-violent offenders, especially mental health and drug court treatment options.

The state would continue to lock up violent criminals for as long as they deserve.  State corrections personnel would also work with local law enforcement agencies to further alleviate local jail overcrowding.  That was an early local concern about the bill.

The original version introduced a couple weeks ago included 17 pages and nearly 600 lines of rules and regulations about such things as community service as a condition of probation, penalties for probation violations, parole supervision, records requirements, how to integrate parolees back into society, new hearings for parole violators and quite a bit more.   Those sections are gone and we are told the decision was to address those issues administratively.

The legislation includes revisions that are consistent with 2010 Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommendations, and that is the best measure of whether this is a good bill.   The Council was asked to address the growth of the state’s prison population, improve public safety by reducing crime and recidivism and hold offenders accountable by strengthening community-based supervision, sanctions and services.

There is a significant emphasis on non-violent property crimes and simple possession of drugs.  Those two categories account for more than half of all state prison admissions and they are a primary reason that state corrections system costs have grown from $500 million annually 20 years ago to $1.1 billion annually now.

The bill would establish three burglary categories with a distinction between burglary of a residence or an unoccupied structure.  Several penalty levels are built into the bill based on contributing factors such as whether the burglar was armed or a residence was occupied at the time of the crime.  The substitute legislation removed a distinction about burglaries committed after sunset and before sunrise because it was considered vague.

Georgia theft statutes have not been updated in about 30 years.  The bill would raise the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,500 – a similar change has been made by many states during criminal justice reforms. The felony shoplifting threshold would increase modestly from $300 to $500.  Retail criminals who routinely stay below the felony shoplifting level will be dismayed by new language that would aggregate the value of their thefts.  The value of property stolen over a 180-day period could be aggregated to reach the felony level.

The expansion of weight-based drug sentencing would phase in over two years starting in July 2013 to give the Georgia Bureau of Investigation time to improve its capabilities.  The new bill would also adjust some sentences.  For instance, conviction for possession of an illegal substance that weighs less than two grams would carry a three-year maximum sentence; the original bill specified a five-year maximum sentence.  Similar minor modifications would be made to other sentences

The Special Council made no child abuse law recommendations.  The revised bill includes language that would require mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse by “reproductive health care facility or pregnancy resource center personnel and volunteers.” This would include employees of facilities that perform abortions when there is suspicion about the cause of pregnancy.

Significant cost would be associated with the implementation of these and other recommendations.  Some of it is being handled inside the state budget, for instance, more beds outside prison for non-violent offenders. Other ideas are included.  The bill proposes offenders who are accepted into mental health curt treatment programs could be charged up to $1,000 with an option that the fee could be waived or collected monthly.  The fee would help cover costs to administer the programs, many of which would not be state-funded programs.

House approval would move the bill to the Senate for a vote expected next week.

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