2016 at the Georgia General Assembly: A Legislative Summary

29th March, 2016
Southern Center for Human Rights

On March 24, 2016, the second and final year of the 2015-2016 Georgia General Assembly came to a close. Despite the relative brevity of the 2016 session, ample time was made to propel Georgia into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. There were a number of red meat bills about women’s health, guns and Tasers on college campuses, and measures that would discriminate against the LGBTQ community and immigrants.

Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform: SB 367

SB 367, an 84-page comprehensive bill that is the product of the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council’s efforts, was passed by both chambers with an overwhelming majority, and now makes its way to Governor Deal for his signature.

The reforms were based on the recent excellent report from the Council, including: 

  • Improving Georgia’s misdemeanor probation system, including requiring a hearing before a person can be arrested because they cannot afford to pay. This legislation requires that before a person can be arrested for failing to report for probation, a probation officer must make the case why incarceration is necessary by completing an affidavit. This bill also attempts to reduce the use of pre-hearing incarceration in cases when a person’s only alleged probation violation is for failure to pay fines, fees, or surcharges. Under these circumstances, the court would not issue an arrest warrant solely for failure to pay, but instead the probation officer would have to seek a court date regarding the failure to pay. 
  • Extending parole eligibility to people serving long sentences for possession. Under existing law in Georgia, courts may sentence people convicted of certain drug offenses to extremely lengthy sentences, up to life without the possibility of parole, as recidivists. Only nine states still impose life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses; Georgia is one of them. Last year, the Georgia General Assembly passed a new law that would allow for certain people incarcerated for long sentence for drug crimes to be released. This year’s legislation takes this one step further and allows for parole eligibility after six years to an additional group of people who are serving long sentences for non-violent drug offenses as a recidivist.
  • Strengthening Georgia’s First Offender Act. The First Offender Act is Georgia’s “second chance law.” Originally passed in the late 1960’s, the law allows certain people charged with a first-time offense to avoid both a conviction and a public record if they successfully complete their sentence. This legislation restores the intent of the original legislation to give people are fair chance at moving on from being charged with a crime.
  • Retroactive Reinstatement of Driver’s Licenses Revoked for a Drug Offense. In 2014, the General Assembly passed a law that those convicted of non-vehicle related drug offenses will no longer face automatic driver’s license suspension. People convicted before this change, however, still faced automatic suspension and expensive fees for their license to be reinstated. The change proposed in SB 367 allows people convicted before 2014 to receive the benefit of the 2015 law, replaces a graduated fee scale with a flat rate, and gives the court jurisdiction to waive or reduce fees for indigent individuals.
  • Reforming the School to Prison Pipeline. This bill establishes restrictions on secure detention for youth 13 years old or under (except for those charged with the most serious offenses). It requires schools to use progressive discipline before sending a child to an alternative school and puts in place measures to improve fairness in school tribunals.
  • Lifting the ban on food stamps for people with drug convictions. This bill will allow all people coming out of prison to apply for food stamps, as opposed to only people without drug convictions.

 

Increases for Statewide Public Defender System

The House and Senate approved the final version of the FY2017 state budget, and it is now on the Governor’s desk. This session has been good for indigent defense. The Governor recommended and the House approved 20 new juvenile defender positions. The Senate cut that number down to five. In response, the Georgia Public Defender Council (GPDC) and other allies advocated to increase the number. As a result, the final conference committee report raised the number of position back up to 15.

Additionally, there will be approximately $1.7 million in salary increases for GPDC employees in the final budget. A portion of those funds will be used for a 3% increase for support staff. The remainder will be used at the discretion of GPDC director to begin addressing attorney salary disparities across the state for the “recruitment, retention, and career advancement” of Assistant Public Defenders (APD). This is the first step to address attorney salary disparity across the state as part of the effort to bring APD salaries to parity with Assistant District Attorney salaries.

 

Grand Jury Reform: HB 941

HB 941, legislation related to grand juries which provides a procedure for review of incidents involving a peace officer’s use of deadly force that resulted in death or serious bodily injury, passed both chambers. Under this legislation, police officers who face charges in a shooting case could offer a statement to grand jurors but would not be allowed to stay in the grand jury room and would face cross-examination.

Tax Incentive for Hiring People with Criminal Records: HB 936

HB 936, created a tax credit for employers who hire certain qualifying parolees. Incentives for employers are a powerful means of encouraging increased hiring of individuals with criminal records, and HB 936 represents a significant step in the right direction. 

 

Important Legislation that Didn’t Move On

Intellectual Disability and the Death Penalty: SB 401

We have been working in coalition with the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities for several years to introduce a bill that will change the standard of proof for proving Intellectual Disability in death penalty cases. We were pleased to get SB 401, thanks to Senator Elena Parent. It had bi-partisan support with Senator Fran Millar as a co-sponsor, and we are hopeful about Republican sponsorship next year to shepherd it through to passage.

 

Dangerous Legislation that Didn’t Pass

Same Bill, Different Number: DNA Collection upon Arrest, SB 77

For the eighth year in a row, we defeated a measure, SB 77, which would have allowed for DNA collection upon arrest for a “serious” felony and as a condition of bond.  We will remain vigilant, as this will surely come up again next year.

The Anti-Criminal Justice Reform Bill: Posting Parole Eligibility in the Newspaper, HB 724

HB 724, entitled the Crime Victims Bill of Rights, would have required advanced notification from the parole board when they consider making a final decision to grant parole or placement into transitional housing. It would have also required publication in the newspaper of the county of the person’s parole date or date of entry into transitional housing. This bill died before Crossover Day.

The Worst of Politics

If Something’s Working, Take a Sledgehammer To It: HB 808 and HR 1113

HB 808 and HR 1113 dismantle the current structure of Georgia’s judicial watchdog group, the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), and remake it in a manner that would weaken its authority. On Day 39, the Senate called the resolution up for a vote. Because this bill proposes a constitutional amendment, this vote requires a 2/3 majority; they didn’t get the votes, so it failed. A legislator moved to reconsider, so they voted again, and it failed again. Then they broke for an hour and a half to get the votes together. They came back and tabled the remaining 60+ bills and then voted again on the JQC resolution. They got their one vote from a Senator who had been trying to get a bill passed for two years. And, just like that, the only check on judges in our state was eviscerated.  

 

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