Opinion: New bipartisan justice reform law’s a win for Ga.

Criminal justice system.
Criminal justice system.

Credit: TNS / File

Credit: TNS / File

Legislators unite to offer second chances to Georgians with criminal records

This year, the General Assembly passed historic, bipartisan criminal justice reform to give Georgians a second chance. Senate Bill 288 is a positive step forward for our state in a time when communities across our nation are asking for meaningful reform.

More than 40% of Georgians - 4.3 million - have a criminal record, and those records pose substantial barriers to these citizens accessing and advancing in their careers. This legislation creates a process for many of these individuals to have their criminal records restricted and sealed for certain misdemeanor and pardoned offenses for employment purposes after not reoffending for a period of four years. The courts will continue to have access to these records and must grant approval for each restriction. Serious violent crimes and sexual crimes are not eligible for restriction under the new law, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2021.

Recidivism is directly tied to unemployment, and ultimately costs millions of dollars every year for families and businesses across Georgia. In addition to helping Georgians get back to work, this bill includes protections for employers and encourages them to hire rehabilitated individuals by prohibiting the admission in court of criminal history information in most cases if the record is restricted and sealed. In the midst of a pandemic with hundreds of thousands of Georgians looking for work, providing tools to help those most in need find employment is how we need to take care of families.

SB 288 is a testament to bipartisanship in our state legislature, and we were proud to carry this legislation as members of opposite parties to help all Georgians. This is a bill we could all agree on, and we are proud that it passed through both chambers unanimously and that Gov. Brian Kemp has now signed it into law. Large employers, including Coca-Cola, Home Depot, McKenney’s, Newell Brands, UPS, and Verizon, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and advocacy groups (74 organizations endorsed the Second Chance for Georgia Campaign, led by the Georgia Justice Project) from all points on the political spectrum got behind this bill and helped push it over the finish line.

Forty-one other states already provide their citizens the opportunity to have a second chance by allowing expungement of certain convictions. In 2019, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Mississippi extended the ability to restrict certain misdemeanor offenses. By passing this legislation, the state of Georgia joins this group and strengthens our communities and economy.

This bill extends the opportunity that had only been available to offenders under the age of 21 to those convicted of a misdemeanor. Along with the help of Reentry and Cognitive Programming and other rehabilitation programs in Georgia, this legislation will help alleviate challenges returning citizens face when seeking housing or applying to school.

SB 288 will help maintain our state’s status as the top state for business and reaffirms our commitment to make Georgia the best state to live, work and raise a family. Thank you to our colleagues in the General Assembly and Gov. Kemp for helping give Georgians a second chance - it’s the right thing to do.

State Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, and State Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens.