Criminal Justice Reform Finally Begins Legislative Journey

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

It’s go time at the Georgia General Assembly.  The fluff time spent honoring various beauty queens, local artists, and other dignitaries with resolutions during the first 25 days while bills circulate through committee is generally over.  The final 15 days or so tend to pick up pace, and signature legislation that will mark major changes in Georgia law become clearer and dominate more of the discussion about legislative activities.

As most legislation that will pass this session has at least had its first committee hearing, one of the bills that was expected to be central to this year’s debates finally made its initial appearance Monday.  The bill that will overhaul Georgia’s sentencing guidelines based on recommendations of a Criminal Justice Reform Council appointed by Governor Deal.  The primary goal of the council was to identify ways to reduce Georgia’s one billion dollar annual budget for the department of corrections.

The lawmakers tweaked the council’s recommendations to not only lower sentences for some minor crimes but increase sentences of crimes that are more severe.  The changes made from the council’s recommendations to the actual legislation earned a slight rebuke from Governor Deal’s office, who indicated that the bill in its current form is not exactly acceptable.  The Governor’s communications director told the AJC that “the process is intended to reduce costs to taxpayers, and it’s his opinion that this bill might actually increase costs.”

While there is general agreement that the council’s recommendations that minor drug infractions and petty property crimes should result in sentences that do not contribute to Georgia’s long term prison population, the politics of making their goals a reality are a lot more sticky.  No legislator wants to face charges of being soft on crime in a tough on crime state.  Thus, for many categories where sentences were reduced for minor infractions, they are proposed to increase on the most severe infractions.

There is cover from the bill for legislators on both the left and the spectrum.  Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, Georgia’s walking personification of a tough on crime D.A., was a member of the council that produced the recommendations and generally supports the bill.  Meanwhile, Sara Totonchi, the Director for the Atlanta based Southern Center For Human Rights, lends support from someone that is usually on polar opposite sides with McDade.

Legislators now must grapple with weighing whether the status quo  and it’s estimated $50 Million plus per year in increased expenditures for the Department of Corrections outweighs the political risk of relaxing their individual tough on crime personas.

One can expect tweaks to be made to the bill to satisfy Governor Deal’s concerns that the reforms do not adequately produce the savings that are envisioned.  One could also expect at least a few legislators to request assurances that their pet projects may be funded with some of the anticipated savings.  This is, after all, how legislation is made.

In the end, the costs need to be weighed not only on the ledgers of Georgia’s finances, but on the cost of human capital.

Mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug infractions now seem like a relic when other states have legalized the sale of marijuana and make it available in retail storefronts.  While it remains well within Georgia’s rights to keep marijuana illegal, incarcerating users at the expense of the taxpayer while other states have created industries around selling the drug as medicine is a paradox that will not stand the test of time – or more importantly, a lingering budget crunch.

Furthermore, setting felony convictions for relatively minor offenses diminishes the prospect that the offender will ever be able to find employment at a level that would allow for self sufficiency.  As such, the balance of how harshly to treat those who commit minor offenses as a deterrent must be weighed against the long term cost in the loss of the individual’s future employment possibilities.

Those who will not be life long prison inmates will eventually pay their price to society and return to live among us.  They need to be prepared and able to be productive Georgians, lest they either return to the prison population, or become expenses to the taxpayer in the form of Medicaid, welfare, and other forms of public assistance given to those who are unemployed or underemployed.

There are no easy answers, but Georgia is right to consider updating sentencing guidelines.  A balance must be struck between protecting law abiding Georgians and making sure the punishment for those who break Georgia’s laws adequately reflects the severity of the crime.

10 comments

  1. CobbGOPer says:

    “Mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug infractions now seem like a relic when other states have legalized the sale of marijuana and make it available in retail storefronts. While it remains well within Georgia’s rights to keep marijuana illegal, incarcerating users at the expense of the taxpayer while other states have created industries around selling the drug as medicine is a paradox that will not stand the test of time – or more importantly, a lingering budget crunch.”

    Completely agree. If they would just make marijuana possession a ticket-able misdemeanor, we could save millions in court costs alone. It makes absolutely no sense to throw someone in jail for having a joint on them. Ticket those people, charge them a fine, and rake in the dough.

    • Three Jack says:

      Better yet, decriminalize marijuana possession so that instead of having to budget for enforcement/incarceration, we can add revenue to the bottom line by taxing it.

      • John Konop says:

        I agree, also the criminal record issue is a major problem, for the person to keep and or get a job. We have created a long term underclass via criminalizing smoking pot.

      • CobbGOPer says:

        Well, TJ, that would be the optimal outcome, but since we’re talking about Georgia, I was thinking baby steps. We still have too many ignorant individuals in this state who think the only good drug user is a locked up drug user; we’ll conveniently ignore the fact that alcohol and tobacco accounts for more deaths and healthcare costs in this state, and everywhere, than marijuana could ever hope to reach.

  2. saltycracker says:

    Marijuana – legalize it, regulate it, control it, tax it – create jobs, increase snack sales….
    Drug use is a health problem, drug distribution by any means is a legal matter….

    • Calypso says:

      You stole my line, almost.

      Legalize ALL drugs, regulate them, and tax them. Take 10% of the current expenditures on the colossally failed so-called “War On Drugs” and spend it on drug education/prevention along with drug treatment.

      • CobbGOPer says:

        And take the other 90% of the current expenditures on the failed ‘War on Drugs’ and GIVE IT BACK TO THE TAXPAYERS, YOU GREEDY BASTARDS.

  3. dorian says:

    Obviously, no one who has posted thus far has actually bothered to read the legislation. It is a convoluted mess (75 pages worth) which substantially and substantively changes the majority of the criminal code. Thus, we get to look forward to a new evidence code taking effect at the same time 3/4 of the criminal code has been rewritten. It will be like practicing law in a new jurisdiction. Also, let’s have the lowest paid lawyers in the state responsible for sorting through this quagmire. Oh yea, they will be.

  4. n0n_s3quitur says:

    My ideas:
    1. Decriminalize marijuana altogether
    2. Make simple possession or personal distribution (as opposed to trafficking) of any controlled substance a misdemeanor, instead of a felony offense as it stands now
    3. Get rid of mandatory minimum sentences and only have maximum caps- give judges the discretion to ensure justice and fairness in sentencing
    4. Get rid of the sex offender registry (as we know it) and replace it with a sexual PREDATOR registry in which the subject has to be specifically adjudicated a sexual PREDATOR at the time of sentencing, but distinct from sentencing itself. No more stat rape guys on the registry for banging that 15 y.o. girl when they were 19.
    5. Eliminate insane probation sentences. 15, 20, 30 years on probation?! A saint couldn’t successfully complete 30 years of freakin’ probation; there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no incentive to succeed. Let’s set these people up for success, not failure.
    6. Fully fund the Georgia Public Defender system.

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