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Lawmakers eye more criminal justice reform

Council recommends legislators expand on 2012 efforts while tackling juvenile system

POSTED: January 16, 2013 12:10 a.m.

As Georgia state lawmakers tackle juvenile justice reform this year, they also are expected to expand on last year’s overhaul of the adult criminal justice system.

In a report released last month that focused mostly on the juvenile justice system, the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommended lawmakers build on efforts to reduce the state’s prison population.

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, has been a prominent voice in criminal justice reform, particularly for mandatory minimum sentencing reform.

He hasn’t seen any legislation yet, but anticipated that juvenile criminal reform would be a prominent issue.

“I’m sure that we will see at least legislation that will bring our juvenile justice system to a more modern day approach, and a little bit more discretion with some of the sentencing,” he said.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh noted that some changes had put increased pressure on his office.

“Significant changes in the criminal law and the evidence code do present challenges, but they will be met by this district attorney’s office,” he said. “However, the resources needed to keep talented, experienced prosecutors and support staff serving the community and crime victims effectively should be an important part of any criminal justice reform.”

Leigh Patterson, Floyd County district attorney and president of the District Attorneys’ Association of Georgia, elaborated on that sentiment.

There are new penalty provisions for certain crimes, and the elements of other crimes have changed so some that used to be felonies are now misdemeanors. Those changes have to be considered as charges are filed and indictments written, she said.

“One of the challenges is that at prosecutors’ offices around the state, people haven’t had raises in four years, there’s no new staff that’s been added, and now we have all these new duties and new code sections and a whole new evidence code to learn, on top of keeping up with increasing case loads,” Patterson said.

Hawkins said legislators want to reduce unintended negative consequences to district attorneys’ offices.

“We’d surely be willing to listen to them,” he said. “We want to produce legislation that hopefully causes no harm to anyone.”

The state prison population has remained fairly steady since June, the council’s report said.

Department of Corrections officials said one of the biggest changes they’ve noticed has been the electronic submission of records from the court where someone is convicted, which allows the offender to be processed and moved into the prison system more quickly.

“It was a very cumbersome process,” Director of Probation Operations Stan Cooper said of the previous system. Electronic submission “has sped the process up enormously and cut down costs and time in jail for offenders waiting to come into the prison system.”

The new legislation also put a cap on how long an offender could be held in a probation detention center, which is a minimum security facility designed to hold probationers who may have violated the terms of their probation or who require more security or supervision.

“What was happening was we had judges who were sentencing offenders to two and three and four years at a probation detention center, which they weren’t designed for,” Cooper said.

Now a stay in those facilities is capped at 180 days, which has reduced the waiting list for people in local jails waiting for a bed in a probation detention center from more than 700 people in July to about 200 now, he said.

Probationers are put on an administrative caseload after two years, and the council’s report says only 18 percent of those unsupervised probationers are rearrested, as opposed to 60 percent of active probationers. The council recommends allowing the probation officers to focus less on administrative caseloads so they can focus on active probation supervision.

The council also recommends having probationers and parolees foot the cost for required drug screens.

Last year’s legislation revised penalties for drug possession by creating degrees of possession based on the weight of the drugs. The council recommends clarifying that this provision doesn’t require the state to prove the defendant knew the exact weight of the drugs.

The council also recommended that several programs provided for by last year’s law be allowed to continue and said their  administrators should provide a status report to the governor’s office by November.

Those programs include: a program to help ease re-entry into society for long-serving offenders; an effort to eliminate double supervision for offenders who find themselves on probation and parole at the same time; and the creation of a risk assessment tool to identify people who have committed nonviolent drug and property crimes who could safely be put into a diversion program rather than going to prison.

The council recommends the creation of an ongoing oversight council to monitor the implementation of the criminal justice reforms enacted last year and any legislation that stems from the report in the current session.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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