The way Georgia punishes thousands of nonviolent offenders will forever change when Gov. Nathan Deal signs landmark legislation Wednesday. It represents a first step in the governor's long-term plan to reserve prison beds for the state's most violent criminals.
Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he will also sign an executive order continuing the work of a special council that studied the state's prison system and recommended sweeping changes to control unimpeded growth in prison spending. The reforms in House Bill 1176, to be signed at a ceremony at the Capitol, are projected to save taxpayers $264 million over the next five years.
"We didn't get everything we originally asked for, but we got the bulk of it," Deal said. "We think it is a significant step in the right direction. ... We do think it's the right thing to do. We don't believe it jeopardizes the safety of Georgians. In fact, we believe it enhances it."
Years ago, Georgia was among the states leading the nation in tough-on-crime sentencing laws. But Georgia now joins a host of other states -- including Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina -- that have enacted legislation to address soaring prison spending that was doing little to reform offenders. The legislation enjoyed extraordinary bipartisan support, with the final version being approved unanimously by both the House and Senate.
The sentencing reform package, which takes effect July 1, is part of a broader criminal justice initiative pushed by Deal. The Legislature also approved the governor's recommendation to quintuple funding to $10 million for "accountability courts" that require defendants to work, seek treatment and stay sober.
"As we reserve more of our expensive [prison] bed space for truly dangerous criminals [we] free up revenue to deal with those who are not necessarily dangerous but are in many ways in trouble because of various addictions," Deal said. "Our system is feeding on itself with our recidivism rate being as high as it is. We have the opportunity now to make a difference in the lives of future generations of Georgians."
Deal said he will ask the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, comprised of lawmakers, lawyers, judges and other officials, to continue its work and focus on getting inmates ready to be contributing members of society before they leave prison.
"I want to have a look at our prison system in terms of whether we can do a better job of rehabilitating by way of training and by way of skills while they're in the institutions so that when they are paroled they will have an opportunity to get a job," Deal told the AJC. "If they don't get a job the likelihood of them coming back into the system is pretty great."
Deal said he will call on both civic and religious groups to help with this initiative.
The special council is also expected to be called on to address two initiatives the Legislature did not take up this year -- decriminalizing many of the state's traffic offenses and allowing "safety valves" for some mandatory minimum sentences.
Georgia criminalizes minor traffic offenses -- more than 2 million a year -- while most other states treat them as violations with a fine as the penalty, the council said in a November report.
These cases do not contribute to the prison population but they clog court systems, the council found. This can occur when someone demands a jury trial, for example, for being ticketed for running a red light and for hearings for offenders who fail to pay their fines or run into other trouble.
The council suggested changing minor traffic offenses from misdemeanors to non-criminal violations, tying enforcement of fine collections to driver's license renewals and vehicle registrations. The council said it would not decriminalize driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license and other, unspecified "serious traffic offenses."
Cobb County State Court Judge David Darden expressed relief the Legislature chose to wait a year before addressing the decriminalization of traffic offenses.
Darden said he had recently presided over a half-day trial for a driver who failed to stop at a stop sign. But he also noted complications could arise in traffic cases for someone charged with speeding, which would be a civil violation, and with drunken-driving, a misdemeanor. If traffic offenses are decriminalized, he said, such a defendant could demand a jury trial for the DUI, but not for speeding.
The state Administrative Office of the Courts is looking into the issue and a state House study committee is expected to hold hearings later this year.
The special council also suggested judges should be allowed to depart from minimum mandatory prison sentences, such as those for drug trafficking. A number of states, including Connecticut, Florida and Maine, have "safety valves" for various drug and habitual violator offenses.
"In Georgia, it's an issue that's not going to go away," said State Bar of Georgia President Ken Shigley, a member of the special council. "To have a one-size-fits-all sentence for crimes that can be so different in terms of the offense and the offender doesn't always serve the best interests of justice."
Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the think tank that strongly supported H.B. 1176, predicted the process will take years. Safety valves, he said, could help inmates with their transitions back into society. "As a private citizen, I would feel a whole lot better if maybe we cut a few months off their sentence, put them in a half-way house, provide them some supervision, some training and if they're not ready yet, pull them back into prison."
State Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, who sponsored the sentencing reform bill, said the law reflects a new "smart on crime" approach in Georgia.
"More non-violent offenders will be directed toward drug courts and rehabilitation where that is possible, and that will reserve more prison beds for violent offenders who need to be kept away," he said. "Public safety is enhanced and taxpayer money is saved."
House Bill 1176, to be signed into law today , would:
- Create new categories of punishment for drug possession crimes, with less severe penalties for those found with small amounts.
- Increase the felony threshold for shoplifting from $300 to $500 and for most other theft crimes to $1,500.
- Create three categories for burglaries, with more severe punishment for break-ins of dwellings by burglars who are armed and cause physical harm to a resident, with the least severe penalties for those who break into unoccupied structures or buildings.
- Create degrees of forgery offenses, with graduated punishment for the type of offense and amount of money involved.
- Eliminate the statute of limitations for prosecutions of suspected child molesters.
- Expand the number of persons required to report suspicions of child abuse.