Deal’s ‘Criminal Justice Reform’ broad
by Sarah Fay Campbell
Georgians convicted of minor drug possession will no longer face mandatory suspension of their driver’s licenses, under Senate Bill 365, which was signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal on Sunday.
The bill also requires the Georgia Department of Corrections to develop and implement programs to assist adult inmates with reentry into society.
Inmates who successfully complete the programs will receive a certificate.
Though SB 365 is billed as the third phase of “Criminal Justice Reform” because of those two changes, the majority of the 20-page bill deals with changes to regulations on child abuse and juvenile offenders who are in foster care. It also makes major changes to the Georgia Child Fatality Review Committee.
The legislation itself, however, is “one of many parts to the overall re-entry initiative that we are undertaking in Georgia,” said Travis Johnson, public safety and criminal justice policy advisor to the governor. The Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry was created last year. The 2015 budget, which takes effect July 1, includes funding for five “reentry housing coordinators” in that office, who will help former inmates find housing. The housing coordinators will be similar to caseworkers, working with individual former prisoners. Funding was also included for the Department of Community Affairs to provide technical assistance to the housing coordinators.
Another administrative change, which was done through an executive order, prohibits state agencies from asking about criminal history on job applications, except on applications for certain high-security jobs.
Instead, criminal histories will be discussed in face-to-face interviews, later in the application process.
The drive to eliminate the requirement to disclose criminal history on a job application is known as “ban the box.”
“The governor will implement ban the box on the state level, and hope that the private sector follows suit,” said Johnson. “This will afford those with blemishes on their record a shot at a good job, which is key to preventing a return to crime.”
The Department of Corrections and the governor’s office are also taking other actions to follow up with the recommendations of the Criminal Justice Reform Council.
“Building on the success of the landmark criminal justice reforms passed in the 2012 and 2013 sessions, the General Assembly and the Criminal Justice Reform Council worked with me to revolutionize Georgia’s criminal justice standards and strengthen our state’s economy,” Deal said in a statement. “The incentives and re-entry programs included in this legislation are cost-effective strategies that will increase the number of former offenders returning to the workforce and supporting their families.”
The bill signing took place at Antioch Baptist Church in Gainesville, and Deal was backed by the Lee Arrendale State Prison Women’s Choir.
There are almost 60,000 inmates in Georgia prisons, Deal said. “At some point in time, almost all of them will be paroled and will be back in our society. If we do not do what we can to make it possible for them to re-enter and be law-abiding citizens when they re-enter, then we have, in fact, increased the danger to all of us as Georgians,” Deal was quoted as saying in the Gainesville Times.
Under Georgia law, convictions for drug possession result in a mandatory license suspension – even if the crime had nothing to do with a motor vehicle. Judges in drug and mental health courts already have the discretion to suspend or not suspend licenses, or to grant limited driving permits.
SB 365 expands that discretion to judges in other courts.
“It is counterproductive to devote the state’s resources to rehabilitating nonviolent offenders and then deny them the ability to independently travel to their place of work,” Deal said.
The new certificate for program completion is intended to “symbolize an offender’s achievements toward successful reentry into society,” according to the bill’s language.
The reentry programs would include educational and vocational programs, and could also include social and behavioral programs, substance abuse counseling, mentoring programs, financial planning, physical and mental health programs, and housing and federal assistance programs.
For those who hire former inmates, lease or rent to them, admit them into schools, and the like, the inmate’s certificate “shall create a presumption of due care.”
However, that presumption “may be rebutted by relevant evidence.”
Those convicted of a “serious violent felony” – murder, rape, armed robbery, aggravated child molestation, kidnapping, aggravated sodomy or aggravated sexual battery – aren’t eligible for the certificates.