State to help released prisoners find success
by Sarah Fay Campbell
Two years after “criminal justice reform” was passed into law by the Georgia General Assembly, a new bill is being drafted that will be the third phase of the reform proposal.
The latest bill aims to help prisoners successfully re-enter society.
The new state juvenile code, approved last year, was considered the second phase of the reform package.
Georgia’s recidivism rate has been 30 percent for nearly a decade. That means that nearly one-third of prisoners leaving state prisons are committing crimes again within three years.
The third phase of criminal justice reform aims to improve public safety by reducing crimes committed by former offenders, and to “increase the success rates of those leaving prison. Improvements would be made by providing a seamless plan of services and supervision for offenders, beginning at the time of incarceration and continuing through reintegration into the community, thereby making former offenders less reliant on government programs and services, according to information in the Criminal Justice Reform Council’s report.
The plan covers many facets, including education, housing, and job opportunities.
In the 2013 session, a bill was passed that re-created the council as a statutory, five-year council.
The council has adopted the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative, a five-year strategic plan “expected to make Georgia the leader in recidivism reduction through collaboration of state and local governmental agencies as well as nonprofits and faith-based organizations,” according to the reform council.
The earlier reforms “gave us a blueprint on how to use rehabilitation to reduce recidivism,” Governor Nathan Deal said in his recent State of the State address. "Already we have seen relief for taxpayer dollars by dropping jail backlogs by nearly 90 percent of what they were when I came into office.”
Coweta Sheriff Mike Yeager said that he has “seen the state move sentenced inmates a lot quicker than in the past.”
“We have a good working relationship with the Department of Corrections so we’ve been successful in moving state sentenced inmates into state custody,” Yeager said. Seventy percent of state prison inmates "do not even hold a high school diploma or GED,” Deal said. "That means we have 38,000 Georgians who walked out of our school doors and into our prisons. That must stop. This is why improving our high school graduation rate is so important. High school dropouts with no marketable skills become the feedstock for our prisons."
"While individuals are in our system, we must do a better job of raising their education and skills to an adequate level so that when they are released they will be better prepared to meet our workforce needs, rather than re-enter the revolving door of the past,” Deal said.
"If an offender has been equipped to enter the workforce upon release, that person will stand a greater chance of avoiding relapse.” One legislative change would give judges discretion in suspending the driver’s licenses for those convicted of drug offenses, as long as the offenses don’t have anything to do with driving a vehicle. When someone is convicted of a minor drug offense and loses his or her license, “then the person has no way to get to work,” said David Werner, former chairman of the council and deputy chief of staff of legislative and external affairs for the Governor’s Office.
Other recommendations of the council include establishing the comprehensive and standardized use of Transition Accountability Planning at four points in the offender’s transition process “that succinctly describe for the returning citizen, the staff and the community exactly what is expected for the returning offender’s success.”
Five “re-entry housing coordinator” positions will be created within the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry, and the Department of Community Affairs will be given the ability to better oversee supportive housing programs developed through the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit.
When it comes to jobs, the goal is to “recognize and address the obstacles and barriers for returning offenders to obtain and retain viable employment while under community supervision, to connect returning offenders with appropriate employers before their release into the community and to achieve this while not giving returning offenders an unfair advantage over the general workforce and not placing mandates on private employers,” according to the council in its report.
One job-related change would relate to applicants for jobs with the state. The state agencies would have to review an applicant's criminal history in a face-to-face interview, rather than on the application, when a criminal history isn’t an automatic disqualification for the job.
Another recommendation is to “create a private cause of action” against private companies that publish incorrect criminal histories.
Finally, there would be a legislative change that would “create a rebuttable presumption of the exercise of due care” for employers, housing providers and educational institutions who employ, provide housing to or enroll in an educational program ex-offenders who completed their treatment plan while in prison and are successfully participating in probation or parole supervision.
One thing that didn’t make it into the initial recommendations is changing the limits on professional licenses for those convicted of felonies.
Felons can get professional licenses, or have them reinstated, but it’s a more difficult process than for those without felony convictions. “The governor is committed to working with legislators to lead new efforts in job training and job placement so that former offenders can become hard working members of their community, supporting their families and paying taxes,” Werner said. "In terms of professional licensing, the governor asked the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform to implement a five-year strategic plan to identify and address these barriers.”
The legislation is expected to be introduced sometime this week. Though it will be “a governor’s piece of legislation,” it will be sponsored by the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees, Werner said.