Access to public records affects all of us

Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “Experience teaches us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent.”

Excerpts from Tuesday’s Rome News-Tribune: If you don’t know about something then you can’t care about it. Even more dangerous is that if you don’t start caring about something then pretty soon you won’t know nothin’.

It appears some in the General Assembly, not to mention a lot of others doubtless supportive of this notion among the less well-thought-of at all levels of government, would like to steadily start shoving citizens/taxpayers/voters into know-nothing land. That is all of the rest of us.

There are so many measures advancing through the Georgia legislature that would limit — take away, actually — public access to various pieces of information involving how tax dollars are being spent as to amount to open warfare against what is called “the people’s right to know.”

The governing party (currently known as Republicans, though Democrats through the ages have sometimes been no less fond of “nosy” citizens and their journalist watchdogs) best start screwing its head on straight. One can’t be for some basic rights, like having guns, and against others, like having knowledge. They are a package.

More important still, the right of access to public-paid information and activity is what keeps all those other rights safer. Laws guaranteeing access to public records by you, me — anybody, actually, if paid for with our tax money or just being done in our name — are known as “sunshine laws.” Why? Because sunshine is the best disinfectant for moldy, sick, nasty things that like to grow in the dark.

Excerpts from The Jackson (Ga.) Herald, Jan. 24:

If a state Senate committee has its way, the public would be blocked from knowing about many local arrests; those convicted of certain crimes would have an easier time having their criminal records expunged or restricted; and employers and landlords would not be able to ask job candidates or prospective renters about their criminal history.

A report released Dec. 31 from the Georgia “Senate Expungement Reform Study Committee” called for those and other changes to state laws to make it easier for those with a criminal record to get hired and obtain housing and to keep past arrests secret.

“The State of Georgia should adopt measures that encourage employers to hire ex-offenders who can demonstrate rehabilitation,” the report says.

In addition to restricting what employers and landlords would know about someone’s criminal history, the report also calls for the state to allow secret arrests.

“Access to booking information and mug shots should be limited to use in the defense and prosecution of criminal offenses and by law enforcement agencies. This information should not be made available to the public,” the report states.

In other words, make Georgia a Police State that allows secret arrests and restrict criminal history records from the media and the public.

While some … concerns are legitimate, this Senate committee went drastically overboard in its recommendations to make many arrest records secret in the state. Employers should be able to find out about a prospective employee’s criminal history. Landlords should be able to find out about a prospective renter’s criminal history. And arrest booking reports and mugshots should not be kept secret from the public.

Can you imagine what would happen in this state if law enforcement officials could make arrests in secret? What checks-and-balances would there be if that happened? How would citizens find out if one of their local public officials had been arrested? How would parents know if a local teacher had been charged with some kind of sexual abuse allegations? How would you know if your neighbor had been arrested for peeping into area windows?

Of course, there are going to be errors. Some people are wrongly charged either by faulty witnesses or bad cops. And some people make mistakes when they’re young that they’re unlikely to repeat as they mature. And yet, those are rare events compared to the overall number of legitimate arrests being made across the state and nation. Georgia should not upend the openness of its criminal arrests system just because a small handful of people have been mistreated.

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