Next steps in Georgia’s criminal justice overhaul become law

With the most sweeping elements of Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice overhaul in the rear-view mirror, the Republican signed a host of lower-profile changes Wednesday that he hopes will leave a lasting imprint.

The effort still caught the attention of an approving White House.

The measure, Senate Bill 367, will expand the accountability court network, create new charter schools in prisons and shield some criminal records of first-time offenders. Deal cast them as a natural extension of his previous work on criminal justice, which has left thousands fewer inmates in costly prison beds.

“This illustrates that you can’t just have a one-and-done approach to criminal justice reform,” Deal said.

The new law lets some offenders who have served their sentences keep their driver's licenses and receive food stamps, and it offers some who have served decades-long sentences for drug-related offenses or nonviolent felonies a chance to be eligible for parole. It also blocks state licensing boards from requiring most people with criminal histories to disclose that information on a job form.

Other provisions allow juvenile courts to create “family treatment” divisions to address drug and alcohol abuse and empower the state to launch charter schools within state juvenile justice facilities that can award graduates full-fledged high school diplomas.

Most of the changes met with little opposition, though First Amendment groups and some employers worried that changes to the First Offender Act chip away at free speech rights. Those changes would allow some first-time offenders to be able to petition a judge to seal their court files, arrest reports and jail logs if the prosecutor signs off.

In a statement Wednesday, President Barack Obama applauded Deal and the legislation “for demonstrating that making our criminal justice system more fair is a bipartisan idea.”

“Georgia’s latest reform bill touches on school discipline, correctional education for youth, the accuracy of criminal records, fees and fines, and occupational licensing. From the community to the cell block to the courtroom, this bill will both enhance justice and promote safety, serving as an example for the nation,” Obama said. “I hope Georgia’s progress will encourage Congress to send me a significant criminal justice bill soon.”

The state’s overhaul of the criminal justice system started in Deal’s first term with changes that allowed Georgia to push more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from expensive prison beds, and gave judges more discretion to depart from mandatory sentences. The second part involved similar legislation that’s aimed at keeping young offenders out of juvenile lockups who were convicted of drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses.

At the time, the state's incarceration rate was the fourth-highest in the nation and projections showed the prison population was to grow an additional 8 percent within five years to roughly 60,000 inmates, costing taxpayers an additional $264 million. The recidivism rate — the proportion of inmates convicted again within three years — remained stuck at a stubborn 30 percent.

Deal said Wednesday that the prison population has now dropped to about 53,800 inmates and that the percentage of nonviolent offenders has decreased dramatically. State officials are hopeful that the recidivism rate will also begin to decline as these changes take root.

“It’s a significant step, the fine-tuning of what we started five years ago,” Deal said. “And it won’t be the last time we revisit criminal justice reform.”