By Devika Dalal
Assistant News Editor
Governor Nathan Deal signed a new bill into action last week, HB 1176, which was unanimously passed by the Georgia Senate in March, will completely overhaul the state’s criminal justice system.
Sponsors of HB 1176 seek to improve administration of criminal offenders, which they say will save Georgians millions of tax dollars and enhance the state’s overall safety.
Dennis Murphy, a criminal justice professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University, believes, at the very least, the bill should save taxpayers money.
“Incarcerating fewer people will save the state taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in prison construction and operation costs, Murphy said. “True, there will be fewer new correctional officer jobs in jails and prisons, but these will be more than offset by the increase in probation-officer positions, positions typically filled by well-educated graduates of criminal justice programs like the one at Armstrong.”
Supporters of the revised bill includes insisted on a stricter, more secure process for probation and control of parole.
It also clarifies the distinction between high and low-level offenders, making penalties for violent and abusive offenders harsher. Among these violent crimes, the bill adds stricter policies for offenses involving cruelty to children.
These are “much-needed reforms that will improve public safety, lower recidivism rates and bring real costs savings to Georgian taxpayers,” said Senator Bill Hamrick, a strong advocate of Georgia’s criminal justice reform. “Without action, taxpayers would have paid $264 million over the next five years to accommodate a rising prison population.”
The bill stipulates a more efficient approach to crimes relating to illegal drugs, burglary, forgery and theft. A rehabilitation system of “drug and mental health court divisions” will be implemented for these low-level criminals to deal with their cases more effectively. This will create more space in prisons to ensure there is room for the more dangerous criminals.
Moreover, the punishments for drug and property crimes will now be based on a system of degrees. Sentences will factor in the quantitative amount or value of illegal substances or activities and allow non-prison alternatives for non-violent offenders.
“Replacing a retribution model of criminal justice correctional policy with a rehabilitation model is certainly worth a try,” said Murphy. “After all, it makes little sense to go about the important public business of “corrections” in a manner that punishes but does not correct illegal behavior, all the while likely ensuring that future behavior will be even worse.”
The bill also limits public access to people’s records if they were not prosecuted or convicted. This, advocates say, should increase job opportunities in Georgia, as records of pardoned cases can be problematic in employment situations, according to the HB 1176 press release.
But opponents to the bill say the loss of public records has disconcerting implications. It may result in the ability of cases to fall off the public radar, without accountability. This means that it could allow people to get away with hiding past offenses.
In response to the bill, Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation said that it may “tilt the balance dangerously towards secrecy and away from the public’s interest in open government.”
>> However, Murphy points toward the difficulty non-violent offenders have in re-integrating into society.
“Nonviolent offenders will remain personally accountable for their conduct, but in a way that both gives them a reasonable shot at a crime-free future life and gives hard-pressed taxpayers a break,” he said. “Perhaps that is why other states have already reformed their corrections approach in ways similar to the way Georgia is attempting.”Contact Devika Dalal.