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New state laws go into effect Sunday
Expanding jury pool, cutting jobless benefits among other changes
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New laws

Georgia laws of note also taking effect July 1 include:

  • A bill to strip bonuses from teachers found cheating on standardized tests.
  • A bill eliminating the $1 charge for the optional “In God We Trust” decals for car license plates;
  • Legislation that will increase the number of barrels brew pubs could produce from 5,000 to 10,000. The bill also increases from 500 to 5,000 the number they could sell to wholesale distributors. Supporters said the law addresses the growing popularity of craft beers;
  • Liquor tastings will be allowed at Georgia distilleries, but limited to half an ounce per person, per day. The state’s few distilleries can conduct free promotional or educational tastings, and the move could help boost tourism.

U.S. citizens living in Hall County may have a harder time ducking jury duty from now on.

Among many new laws that will take effect in Georgia on July 1, is one that expands local jury pools to include every citizen who is at least 18 and either votes or has a driver’s license.

Before, the state’s jury commission picked the pools to match a county’s demographics in the latest census data in a process called forced balancing.

Georgia is the last state to pick juries that way, said Hall County’s Clerk of Courts Charles Baker.

The new law assumes “that the driver’s license list and voter list is a representation of the community,” and eliminates the possibility of discrimination since all eligible jurors are in the pool, Baker said.

Still, Baker said he expects a defendant’s attorneys in a death penalty case might challenge whether a jury pool matched the demographics of a community based on the new law.

But the rules follow Georgia’s Supreme Court guidelines, said Chief Deputy Clerk of Courts Greg Whitmire.

The new law also allows grand jurors to be picked from the same pool as trial jurors, Baker said.

Grand jurors decide whether prosecutors have enough evidence to take a case to trial.

Until now, grand jurors were chosen based on their standing in the community, having to pass background checks before serving.

The jury list will also be refreshed every year instead of every 10, which had been the practice.

Sweeping changes to Georgia’s criminal justice system that, among other things, will enhance the role of accountability courts are also beginning to take effect.

Hall County has been a leader in establishing alternative courts aimed at offering a more compassionate approach to sentencing for criminals with drug or mental health issues.

“Jails are not equipped to handle mental health services,” Superior Court Judge Kathlene F. Gosselin, who oversees the mental health court at the Hall County Courthouse, said in April. “People don’t get better in jail.”

After signing the bill in May, Gov. Nathan Deal said, “This will pay dividends to taxpayers over and over, from the reduced cost to our prison system to the increase in the number of people who return to the workforce and support their families.”

Deal, a former judge, championed the legislation as a priority, sought to provide alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders while reducing soaring prison costs. The Judicial Council of Georgia will spend the next several months establishing standards for state drug and mental health courts.

Sentencing changes for theft, shoplifting and forgery will also take effect July 1.

Out-of-work Georgians also will soon see their benefits slashed nearly in half.

This session, Republicans argued that the state needed to find a solution to begin repaying more than $760 million borrowed from the federal government in recent years to cover Georgia’s unemployment benefit payments when the state’s trust fund was drained during the prolonged recession. The answer was to reduce unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of between 14 and 20 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said now is the responsible time to act with the unemployment rate declining.

“The best way to help the unemployed is to create jobs in Georgia, and that’s where Gov. Deal’s focus is,” Robinson said. “It’s important to note the safety net is still there, but we had to reform the system or it would have collapsed — that’s the worst outcome for Georgians in need.”

The state’s unemployment rate has remained above the national average for months.

Another new law will require some people applying for welfare to pass a drug test, but it is likely to face a court challenge. Opponents say they will likely pursue a lawsuit, but not until the measure is actually put into practice. Courts have struck down similar laws in other states, but supporters in Georgia have expressed confidence that the law here would be upheld.

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