Georgia’s ambitious criminal justice reforms are now in their fifth year, and advocates will ask lawmakers in the upcoming General Assembly to enact more measures that give offenders re-entering society a better chance to find a job and a roof over their heads.
The 2016 initiative will try to fix problems with the First Offender Act. It will ask lawmakers to let drug offenders keep their driver’s licenses and get food stamps. It will request that a number of inmates sentenced for drug possession become eligible for parole.
Since taking office, Gov. Nathan Deal has made the reform effort a top legislative priority.
“While it is important that our criminal justice system punish those who have harmed the lives and property of our citizens, it should also seek to change the direction of their lives so that they will not repeat their criminal conduct upon release,” Deal said.
He said the state has this message to inmates: “If you pay your dues to society, if you take advantage of the opportunities to better yourself, if you discipline yourself so that you can regain your freedom and live by the rules of society, you will be given the chance to reclaim your life.”
A central theme behind Deal’s initiatives has been to reserve costly prison beds for violent and predatory offenders and substitute rehabilitation for nonviolent lawbreakers.
At a recent meeting of Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform, co-chair Thomas Worthy noted Georgia’s prison population has been steadily declining over the past three years. And the percentage of violent offenders held in custody is rising, he said.
“We are not claiming premature success or victory,” Worthy said. “But the trends are going in the right direction. That’s what we need to see moving forward.”
Co-chair Michael Boggs, an appeals court judge, said the council will ask legislators to address a federal law that imposes a lifetime ban on anyone convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving food stamps.
The law gives states the option of limiting or eliminating the ban altogether. Seven states, including Georgia, have failed to do so. The council will ask Georgia to join the states that have lifted the ban.
“We need to remove this impediment to their successful re-entry,” Boggs said, citing data showing that two out of every three felons with drug-related convictions have children.
Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, said felons with violent felony or sexual assault convictions can receive food stamps, while those with drug convictions cannot. “It’s inequitable,” he said, supporting the proposal.
‘JUST A BUREAUCRATIC THING’
Two weighty issues — the state’s strict mandatory-minimum sentences and its misdemeanor and felony probation programs — are expected to be revisited in 2017.
“While we have made significant progress, we have an opportunity to accomplish even more,” Boggs said.
A priority in 2016 will be addressing the First Offender Act. Under this law, offenders with no prior convictions can, in certain circumstances, plead guilty and have no conviction on their records if they successfully complete their sentence.
But often those charges remain in the public record and can be easily accessed by private companies that mine data for background checks. This has meant people who satisfied all the requirements of the act later found out, often by prospective employers, that their initial charges were still on the books.
Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, said his research found that almost 2 million defendants were eligible for first-offender treatment over a recent 10-year period and that more than 200,000 of them took advantage of it.
Yet many never realized the law’s benefits because papers were never filed. “It wasn’t someone being intentionally mean, it was just a bureaucratic thing that wasn’t getting done,” Ammar said.
‘REALLY GET A SECOND CHANCE’
Under the council’s proposal, first offenders would have their cases discharged automatically — and sealed in the Georgia Crime Information Center database — once they successfully complete their sentence.
Also, first-offenders could ask a judge to seal their court files as soon as they plead guilty. The judge would decide the issue by weighing the public’s right to know the information against the individual’s interest in keeping it private.
If sealed, the information could still be accessed by law enforcement and the courts. Also, the records would be unsealed if the offender messes up, such as violates probation.
“This means that many people — such as the guy who did something stupid in college or someone who committed a crime because of a substance abuse problem — can really get a second chance,” Ammar said.
The council also will seek to restore driver’s licenses to offenders convicted of non-driving-related drug offenses. Under Georgia law, licenses are suspended for six months for a first controlled substance act offense, one year for a second offense and five years for a third.
As a result, offenders who are on probation cannot drive to work. Or they drive anyway, which can lead to more problems if they get caught, said Mike Mitchell, government liaison for the state Department of Drivers Services.
EXPANDING PAROLE ELIGIBILITY
During the last General Assembly, lawmakers enacted a law that allows nonviolent drug offenders — including some sentenced to life terms — to be eligible for parole.
Such offenders can now ask for parole after they serve at least 12 years. They also must have no history of violence, have been a model inmate and have a high school diploma or a GED.
The law, however, only covered offenders convicted of selling or manufacturing illegal drugs. It failed to include recidivists convicted of the lesser offense of drug possession, a number of whom are serving up to 30 years in prison without the chance for parole.
The council’s proposal will ask lawmakers to allow these offenders to be eligible to ask for parole after they’ve spent six years in prison and met the same conditions.
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