A key House committee passed a bill Monday that would allow nonviolent drug offenders to apply for food stamps after completing their sentences.
Senate Bill 367, sponsored by state Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon, would change state law and enable certain nonviolent offenders to keep their driver’s licenses, do away with any public record of their cases, and seal any documents revealing that a criminal conviction or accusation ever existed. The bill would also request a number of inmates sentenced for drug possession become eligible for parole.
The bill received unanimous approval from the state Senate last month.
House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Chairman Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, said denying drug offenders the ability to apply for food stamps once they complete their sentence “will push them, perhaps, to go ahead and reoffend.”
“You can come out of the system having served time for a violent felony, and you can go ahead and apply for food stamps,” Golick said. “But you can’t go and apply if you come out on a drug charge. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
The legislation is part of a joint effort between Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers, Golick said, to look for “avenues for individuals to become productive members of society.”
Critics of the legislation have expressed concerns that it would limit the public’s access to records since the bill would allow first-offenders to ask a judge to seal their court files as soon as they plead guilty. The final decision would rest with the judge, who would weigh the public’s right to know the information against the individual’s interest in keeping it private.
Hollie Manheimer, the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, is an outspoken critic of the sealing of records that the legislation proposes.
“It will alter the public’s confidence in the workings of the justice system and undermine the public’s faith that the criminal justice system is protecting the interests of law abiding citizens,” Manheimer said in a letter last week to Deal and the bill’s sponsors.
The state’s Criminal Justice Reform Council stands by the legislation, saying that closing criminal files would enable nonviolent offenders to get jobs more easily.
Employers have expressed concerns that they will lose the ability to properly screen job seekers if the bill is signed into law. Even current Georgia law allows certain criminal records to go undetected in employment background checks.
SB 367 now moves to the House Rules Committee, which will determine whether it gets a floor vote.