New law to overhaul Georgia’s sentencing laws was long overdue

(Editor’s note: Today’s guest editorial is from the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.) Two bills passed in the waning days of Georgia’s 2011 regular legislative session will both advance the cause of criminal justice in the state, and both are years overdue. The first and probably more important is one Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law. It creates a state panel to study and overhaul Georgia’s sentencing laws. Those laws have been misshapen by years of short-sighted get-tough politics, resulting in a system that too often gets tough on the wrong people and sucks away money and capacity the state needs for cracking down on the right ones. It has been an expensive and irresponsible miscalculation: Georgia has the nation’s highest incarceration rate, and its taxpayers pour a billion dollars a year into prisons. The Associated Press reported that Georgia annually spends $3,800 per child in public schools, and $18,000 per inmate in state correctional facilities. That’s a warped statistic by any reasonable measure.
Deal, who deserves kudos for leadership on a problem that should have been corrected (so to speak) years ago, signed the bill in a ceremony in Hall County. It’s one of several local governments — Muscogee is another — that have established drug courts as less expensive and more productive alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. But the governor had strong support from the other two branches of government as well: Lawmakers supported the bill overwhelmingly, and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein led the charge for the judiciary. The other bill is the product of more than seven years of work by the Supreme Court’s Jury Composition Committee and its chairman, Justice Hugh Thompson. It represents the first major reform of the jury system in Georgia in almost 50 years. Specifically, it is a belated update of a jury selection system that relied almost exclusively — and “exclusive” would be the operative word here — on voter registration lists. That’s obviously an inadequate and incomplete cross-section of a society, especially as Georgia has grown increasingly diverse, and it’s doubly absurd in the era of digital information collection. As a result of the Jury Reform Act of 2011, counties seeking to assemble jury pools will now have access to data banks such as driver’s licenses and records, birth and death certificates and other official lists of names in the public domain.


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