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Deal’s last criminal justice reform project targets bail, elder abuse
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Gov. Nathan Deal

Criminal justice reforms regarding bail and elder abuse are now on the Georgia General Assembly’s table for 2018 after Gov. Nathan Deal filed two bills on Wednesday in the state Senate.

Deal’s office filed Senate Bill 406 and Senate Bill 407 based on recommendations from the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform. The council delivered its recommendations to the governor’s office on Wednesday, according to an announcement.

The recommendations were divided into the two bills.

Chief among the new changes in the legislation is reform to misdemeanor bail requirements.

With bail requirements coming under scrutiny nationwide — and with pretrial inmates representing the largest portion of Georgia’s inmate population — the legislation introduced on Wednesday loosens bail requirements and allows more court fees and fines to be converted to community service.

“Studies show that people released on bail who are employed, connected with their families, and are not abusing drugs or alcohol are more likely to make their court appearance,” states the executive summary of the council’s 74-page report.

Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard said the monetary bail issue was one that was hotly debated. Some argued for the abolition of the practice, while others wanted to limit the discussion to just misdemeanor cases.

“This is driven by cases where people who cannot afford bond languish in jail for a number of days, and in the metropolitan areas like the city of Atlanta, that can happen frequently with misdemeanors as well as felonies,” she said.

The council argues state and national evidence shows inmates held in jail before their trial become more likely to commit crimes in the future, in part causing some of the nation’s over-incarceration issues.

“Roughly 60 percent of jail inmates nationwide are pretrial, and three out of four of those being held in custody pretrial are people accused of property, drug or other nonviolent offenses,” the report states. “In Georgia, as of early January 2018, 64 percent of all jail inmates were awaiting trial.

“While many people held pretrial are neither a danger to public safety nor a flight risk, their detention contributes significantly to the $9 billion jail bill paid annually by local governments across the United States.”

From her experience, Woodard said people not making bond in the first 36 to 48 hours often do not have the financial resources or property to do so.

“Our office pulls those folks in and looks at (own recognizance) bonds with conditions in attempt to not displace (people) from home or work,” she said.

The heft of 2018 criminal justice reform comes in SB 407, which makes changes to misdemeanor bail and a host of other criminal justice laws. Among the changes is a provision that would allow drug court participants to earn a limited driver’s license to help make them more employable.

One of the council’s recommendations was to allow Superior Court judges the ability to review and make bonds on the lower courts, as certain jurisdictions only hold court once a week.

“That’s one of the problems with making wholesale changes is contemplating the resources of everybody from the most metropolitan and densely populated counties to rural Georgia,” Woodard said.

Woodard argued there are some efficiencies created through the monetary bond system, particularly with the Hall County Solicitor’s Office tackling 12,000 cases last year.

“If there’s no monetary bond, that’s 12,000 people waiting in line to see a judge to have him set whatever the parameters are if there’s not a bond schedule,” she said.

Deal’s office has touted improving incarceration statistics since the first wave of reform was enacted in 2011, including a 15-year low in the number of people sent to prison in 2017. Last year also saw the lowest number of African-Americans entering the prison system since 1987, according to the announcement.

SB 406 is relatively specific and targets elder abuse. The bill requires comprehensive background checks for elder care providers in personal care home and assisted living facilities, and it requires facilities and their employees to participate in the FBI’s background check database.

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