Changes could be in store for mandatory minimum sentences

Leading Georgia lawmakers on Thursday proposed limited changes to the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, widely considered to be among the toughest in the nation.

House Bill 349 would allow for reduced sentences for some defendants charged with drug trafficking and other serious felonies. It would provide “safety valves” for cases in which prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that a harsh mandatory minimum term is unwarranted; for example, a person who sat in the car while his friend committed an armed robbery of a store might be eligible for a break.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, is sponsored by the chairman of a key judiciary committee, the governor’s three floor leaders and a former federal prosecutor.

“The governor’s legislation restores judicial discretion to a limited degree in very narrow circumstances where that discretion is appropriate,” said Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, the bill’s lead sponsor and chair of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. “We have something very similar in the federal system, so we’re not plowing new ground.”

HB 349 would let judges impose prison terms below the mandatory minimums in drug-trafficking cases if:

  • The defender was not a leader of the crime and did not use a weapon.
  • The criminal conduct did not result in death or serious injury.
  • The defendant had no prior felony conviction.

The legislation also would allow for reduced sentences for defendants who plead guilty to armed robbery, which carries a minimum 10-year sentence, and to kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy and aggravated sexual battery, all of which call for minimum 25-year terms.

This can only occur when the prosecutor and defense attorney agree to the reduced sentence and the judge signs off on it.

The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, a group of judges, prosecutors and other state officials appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal, recommended the safety valve for mandatory minimums in a report released in December.

Deal has pledged his support for HB 349, which also includes an evidentiary change that helps prosecutors in child molestation cases and gives drug court participants the chance to get limited driving permits.

“Working with legislators, we’ve put together a bill that will further the governor’s goal of increasing public safety by holding offenders accountable and reducing recidivism,” the governor’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, said Thursday.

A year ago, the Legislature unanimously approved criminal justice reform legislation that diverts nonviolent offenders away from prison to treatment programs, such as drug courts. The legislation is projected to save more than $264 million in prison spending over the next five years.

This governor’s special council said this year’s legislation should promote “truth in pleading,” because some offenders are being allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges to avoid mandatory minimums. Under HB 349, offenders would plead guilty to the actual crimes they are accused of committing.

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