As I mentioned last week, Criminal Justice Reform, House Bill 1176 passed the House. This week’s column is devoted to presenting this legislation.  Since 1990, Georgia’s prison population has more than doubled to nearly 56,000 inmates, costing the state over $1 billion annually.  Despite this growth, Georgia taxpayers have not received a sufficient public safety return on their corrections dollars. In fact, our recidivism rate – the proportion of inmates who are re-convicted within three years of release – has held steady at nearly 30 percent for the past decade.

Aware of the problems in Georgia’s criminal justice system, the Georgia Supreme Court, Governor Deal, and the Georgia General Assembly worked together last year to create the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians.  This bi-partisan council conducted an in-depth analysis of the state’s sentencing and corrections data to determine how the state can better utilize taxpayers’ dollars in keeping dangerous criminals off the street.

The council found that 60 percent of all prison admissions were drug and property offenders, many of which committed non-violent crimes and had never been to prison before.  With each of these offenders costing the state $49 a day in prison, it became apparent that other community-based options, such as Day Reporting Centers that cost $16 a day per offender, might be a more efficient and cost-effective method for supervising non-violent offenders.  This is especially true when you consider the fact that our prisons are filled with drug addicts caught in a cycle of petty crime to support their habit followed by short stints in prison where rehabilitation is not offered.  Rather than perpetuate this problem, we could break the cycle through low cost community-based rehabilitation.  Unfortunately, few judges in our state currently have viable sentencing options other than prison.   

To change this, HB 1176 would concentrate prison space on violent and career criminals by enhancing penalties for some serious offenders and appropriately punishing low-level drug users and property offenders.  It also creates tougher, more effective probation supervision; improves community-based sentencing options, such as accountability courts, that reduce recidivism; and holds agencies accountable for better results through data collection and performance measurement systems.  This bill will NOT reduce the sentences for any serious violent felonies or decriminalize or legalize any controlled substance.

The reforms implemented by HB 1176 will allow Georgians to rest assured that their tax dollars are being spent on an efficient criminal justice system without sacrificing public safety.  By redirecting some of the money we spend incarcerating low-risk, non-violent offenders with substance abuse problems toward more effective community-based options that cost less and produce better outcomes, we will make all of Georgia’s communities safer.  Moreover, the measures included in this legislation will save taxpayers an estimated $264 million by averting projected growth in prison costs over the next five years.  Some other features of the bill include:

A felony for shoplifting would be raised from $300 to $500.

An increase for other felony theft crimes to $1,500.

Burglaries will be classified into three categories. The most severe will include break-ins of occupied spaces by armed persons, or who cause physical harm of the resident, or have already been convicted of burglary.  The least severe penalties will be for those who break into unoccupied spaces.

Forgery will also be divided into categories.  The severity of punishment will be determined by the type of offense and amount of money involved.  

There will no longer be a statue of limitations for prosecutors of suspected child molesters.

There will also be an expansion of the number of persons required to report suspicions of child abuse.  

For more information, you can find the complete bill at http://www.legis.ga.gov.

The following bills passed the House:

Senate Bill 143:  This bill requires massage therapists to be fingerprinted and undergo criminal background checks prior to receiving a license.  The applicant will be responsible for all fees related to these reports.

Senate Bill 225:  If a person using social media, Facebook, Twitter, or sends an email saying that they have committed a crime, knowing that they have not and the information is false; with the passage of SB 225, this action would be a misdemeanor.  The police are obligated to investigate any credible leads and reporting false crimes through the use of social media wastes taxpayers resources and the valuable time of law enforcement.  

Senate Bill 337:  This bill allows insurers to, under certain circumstances, offer wellness endorsements which are intended to act as incentives for policy holder to have fewer claims.  

Senate Bill 365:  The bill was brought by The Georgia Real Estate Closing Attorneys Association.  The purpose is to prevent the unauthorized practice of law commonly referred to as “witness only” closings.  The definition of “settlement agent” is changed to be a lender or an active member of the State Bar of Georgia.  

Senate Bill 368:  This bill requires certain continuing competency requirements to be completed for nursing license renewals beginning in 2015.  This bill allows nurses to place their license on inactive status.  

Senate Bill 396:  This bill renames the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center to the Georgia Southern Herty Advanced Materials Development Center and transfers governance to the Board of Regents.  

Senate Bill 446:  The purpose of this bill is to transfer the oversight and inspection of elevators, dumbwaiters, escalators, moving walks, boilers, amusements rides, carnival rides, and scaffolding from the Department of Labor and Commissioner of Labor to the office of Safety Fire Commissioner.

March 30th was the last day of the 2012 Session.  Remember none of the bills that I have reported on the past few months will become law until the Governor signs them.  In the next few weeks, I will give you a complete round up of 2013 session.

As always, I will continue to keep you informed of the important work of the Georgia General Assembly.  As the end draws near, I hope to see you back at home.  If you have any other questions, please call my office at (404) 463-2247.  I look forward to continuing to work for you. 

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