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Report touts criminal justice reforms, says more to be done

POSTED: January 12, 2014 10:36 p.m.

The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform’s annual report called for changes that would help released offenders rejoin their communities.

In a short legislative session, the recommendations of the report released Friday, which dovetail with the priority set by the governor’s office of helping released offenders re-enter society, are most likely to see discussion.

Proposals include legislation that would assist offenders in finding jobs and housing, reducing barriers for certain offenders to obtain a driver’s license and a “ban the box” provision for state jobs (excluding law enforcement), which would remove the requirement for people to disclose convictions in their initial employment applications.

The council was established by legislation based on the recommendations of a similar council, appointed by the Gov. Nathan Deal in 2011. Its report cited the statistics that spurred a closer look at criminal justice reform: Between 1990 and 2011, Georgia’s prison population more than doubled to nearly 56,000 inmates, and spending on incarceration from $492 million to more than $1 billion annually.

Reoffending didn’t budge, with about 30 percent of offenders reincarcerated within three years.\

Past reforms have focused on the type and length of punishment for nonviolent offenses, and the report said the prison population reflects those changes: The proportion of violent and sex offenders in prison increased from 58 percent in January 2009 to 64 percent in June of 2013.

“This shifting offender profile shows that, as intended, Georgia is increasingly focusing expensive prison space on dangerous offenders while using more cost-effective, community-based sanctions for less serious lawbreakers,” the report said.

Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal heads an alternative sentencing program, the Hall County Drug Court, a two-year counseling and accountability program.

He is also a member of the 15-person committee, which he said strives to keep tabs on changes.

“We meet periodically, and one of the things we are tasked with is oversight of these changes and looking at the results as they come in,” he said.

Absent from this year’s report were reforms to mandatory minimum laws, indicating satisfaction with changes in last year’s law, which established discretion for judges to depart from the minimum sentence in limited circumstances.

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, voiced his support in the past for changes in mandatory minimum laws.

“I really hate to see some of our young people getting lengthy sentences on mandatory minimums when we have excellent judges,” Hawkins said. “I think when they’re given the ability to make decisions, better decisions are made.”

The Georgia General Assembly convenes the 2014 session today.

Legislators have said setting the budget — a sizable and constitutionally mandated task — will be their top priority.


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