Senate Passes Criminal Justice Reform 51-0 with Amendments

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Georgia Public Policy Forum Editor

Georgia criminal justice reform has passed both chambers but the House would need to agree to substitute legislation because the Senate added seven amendments when it passed the bill 51-0 on Tuesday afternoon.  Two other floor amendments failed and two were withdrawn.

None of the amendments dramatically change Georgia’s most sweeping criminal justice reform since a generation of do the crime, do the time laws were passed some twenty years ago.

Governor Nathan Deal made criminal justice reform a major priority during his first State of the State address in January 2011.  The work of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform last year and the legislature this year are an important first step forward with others to follow.

The satisfaction that was evident because of these reforms is somewhat tempered because the fate of a juvenile justice code rewrite is less certain.  Some sources who are familiar with the HB 641 juvenile code rewrite said Tuesday that the bill is dead this year because it still requires more financial analysis of the impact that would be made by proposed changes.

So for the moment the spotlight shines on adult criminal justice system reforms.

Monday afternoon Sen. Bill Hamrick outlined changes to burglary, forgery and other sections when he presented House Bill 1176 to the Senate.  Hamrick is co-chair of the Special Joint Committee on Criminal Justice Reform.  One amendment would reduce the number of felony burglary levels from three in the House version to two in the Senate version.

“After discussion with prosecutors we believe it was a little too complicated and so we’ve narrowed it to two,” Hamrick said about the burglary section.  Residential burglary would become a first degree felony and all other burglaries would become second degree felonies.  The House and the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform both said that burglary of an occupied home should be treated different from burglary of unoccupied sheds or buildings.

The Senate version would also change the forgery statute.  “Checks are the most common type of forgery,” Hamrick said.  Felony check forgery would be established at $1,500 and above, or possession of ten or more blank checks that were intended to be passed as forged checks.  Forgery of checks valued at less than $1,500 would be prosecuted as misdemeanor offenses.

Other changes would assist counties with drug court funding, assist state courts if their case loads grow due to other criminal justice reforms, make sure misdemeanor crimes are counted when a person’s recidivism record is being reviewed and strengthen the state’s prosecution language for persons who are charged with trafficking a person for sexual purposes.

There was bipartisan enthusiasm for reform on the Senate floor.  “It is my hope that not only can we pass this unanimously but also look toward some of the remaining issues that in the future may need to be addressed,” said Democratic Sen. Emanuel Jones.  Gov. Deal has kept the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform intact and its work is expected to continue this year.

The intent of this two-year reform initiative is to slow down the anticipated growth inside Georgia prisons by emphasizing alternatives to incarceration for non-violent property crime offenders and personal drug abusers who would benefit more from intense treatment programs.

Twenty years ago Georgia had a $500 million state prisons budget and about 30,000 inmates. A generation of popular do the crime, do the time laws exploded the prison population. Today the state has 56,000 inmates and a $1.1 billion prisons budget plus several hundred million more dollars for parole and probation.  Georgia faced having 60,000 inmates plus $264 million in additional cost within four years if the state did nothing about criminal justice reform.

Another section in the new law would change public access to records kept on persons who are charged but never prosecuted or charged but never convicted.  The charge — regardless of the outcome — often makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to find employment, which is one of the two key factors in rehabilitation.  The other is available secure housing.

Hamrick noted people who have an arrest but no conviction “deal with that on their record for the rest of their life, basically.  We have some provisions in the bill that would allow for those records to be restricted when a person is applying for a job but not restricted to the extent that law enforcement or judicial officials would not get that information.”

The House and Senate are not in session Wednesday.  House consideration of the Senate amendments will become an agenda for the 40th and final day on Thursday.

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