Deal signs bill revamping many criminal sentences

Calling it a historic day for Georgia, an emotional Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday signed into law major changes to how the state punishes non-violent criminals.

Deal signed House Bill 1176 at the Capitol surrounded by lawmakers and members of his Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which recommended many of the new law's provisions.

The sentencing reform package is projected to save taxpayers $264 million in prison spending over the next five years. The legislation, which takes effect July 1, establishes alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent drug and property offenders and reserves expensive prison beds for the most dangerous offenders.

The initiative is part of Deal's criminal justice reform agenda, which includes $10 million in funding for "accountability courts" that require defendants to work, seek treatment and stay sober.

Deal said those special courts will save the state money through lower recidivism, but they will also save lives and families. Deal's son, Jason, is a superior court judge in Hall and Dawson counties and oversees  drug courts there. Deal said he and his wife, Sandra, who was also at the bill signing, had attended the program's graduation ceremonies.

"To listen to the stories, to the lives that have been changed, the families who have been reunited and lives that have, quite frankly, been cast aside by the system that was in place, had a tremendous emotional effect on me," Deal said as he fought back tears.

The special council, which worked with the Pew Center on the States in developing its new policies, will continue its work, Deal said.

"This comprehensive new law reflects a bipartisan consensus about how to combat nonviolent crime," Adam Gelb, director of Pew's Public Safety Performance Project, said. It will "make communities safer and curb runaway corrections spending."

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, who served on the special council, praised enactment of the legislation.

“This is very positive step, a great start,” she said. “Hopefully moving forward we will look at other possible improvements to the criminal justice system that will benefit the citizens of this state.”

Hunstein said it will be important for the continued work of the council “to monitor how effective this legislation is and whether we’re getting the desired results we want.”

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