Georgia to reconsider sentencing laws

mlee@macon.comJanuary 12, 2013 

ATLANTA -- Last year the state Legislature tried to solve the problem of overbooked prison beds, passing a law that sends fewer people to prison. This year, they will look at building on that law, though some people want the law dismantled instead.

Georgia should allow judges to set aside some mandatory minimum sentences for adults, says the report of the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council, a blue-ribbon panel charged with recommending changes to adult and juvenile criminal law. The report also says Georgia could save money and reduce juvenile re-offending by treating low-risk youths in their own communities with restorative justice or community service rather than a trip to a juvenile detention center.

“Hopefully you may be able to see something early this session,” said state Rep. Willie Talton, R-Warner Robins, retired chief deputy of the Houston County Sheriff’s Office and a member of that blue-ribbon panel. Last May, Gov. Nathan Deal renewed the council’s legislative charter for 2012, sending 20 legislators, attorneys and judges back to work on more changes.

“Whatever’s going to come out is what you’ve seen in the report,” Talton said.

The report suggests letting judges depart from mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug trafficking offenses. And when prosecutor and defense counsel agree, judges should be able to hand down lighter sentences in so-called Romeo-and-Juliet cases -- sex crimes involving two young people -- rather than what would be handed down in a case involving a young person and an older predator, the council said.

The council also says people who have suspended driver’s licenses should be able to get a conditional permit if they are participating in accountability courts, which means tight supervision by judges and probation officers.

On the council’s recommendation, the Legislature already has changed the threshold between some felonies and misdemeanors. Shoplifting more than $300 in merchandise was the old minimum for a felony. Since July 1, that’s been raised to $500. First-time check forgery is now a misdemeanor up to $1,500.

Those and other similar changes are expected to avert a projected 8 percent increase in the state prison population and save some $264 million, according to the council.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills was upset about that change last year and hasn’t changed his mind since. He maintains the moves interfere with a sheriff’s duty to protect the public.

“The only thing we want to come out of that Capitol up there is nothing else that’s going to interfere,” said Sills, president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.

Both last year’s bill and the changes proposed for this year merely shift offenders from state custody to county lockups and county balance sheets, he said, and will let more criminals on the street.

“There’s a lot of old people out here that are constantly being defrauded, stolen from, and it’s usually always less than $1,500,” said Sills, referring to the new forgery statute.

Georgia sheriffs also perennially complain about holding state offenders in their county jails and receiving what they say is insufficient payment from the state. According to state figures over the past few months, between 5,000 and 5,200 state inmates are in county jails where they’re not wanted.

Both Sills and the Georgia Department of Corrections say it’s too early for the change in law to show up in any count of offenders.

Other changes are starting to be visible, according to the state corrections department.

“One of the biggest pieces” of last year’s House Bill 1176, said a state corrections spokeswoman, “was the electronic submission of sentence packages on prison-bound cases. The goal was to streamline the process and shorten the length of time offenders stay in jail awaiting entrance to the state prison system. Since July 1, over 8,000 sentence packages have been submitted electronically to our Offender Administration Unit.”

When a judge sentences someone to state prison, the state legally has 15 days to pick them up from the county jail. Those 15 days are a sore spot with the sheriffs’ association.

Last year’s law also capped stays at Georgia’s probation detention centers -- minimum security facilities for probationers -- to 180 days.

“The waiting list for these facilities has dropped from 700 to 200,” according to the Department of Corrections spokeswoman. “The backlog for probation detention center cases for males is now zero and 200 for females.”

Also under last year’s bill, though not part of the council’s recommendations, criminal records are set to close to the public if no prosecution is ever made.

A government transparency group is fighting that.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is working on amending the expungement provisions because they reach too widely, said its executive director, Hollie Manheimer. Manheimer’s group will lobby to modify the bill during the 40-day legislative session which begins Monday.

Meanwhile, the council made no recommendations on gun laws in Georgia, though in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting, Talton said legislators are sure to file several bills this session.

Georgians seem to be worried that the federal government may move to tighten gun possession laws, officials said.

Sills said Putnam County is processing as many gun permit applications in a week as it used to receive in six months. Sills’ job is to review each applicant’s criminal and mental health history for Probate Court.

“We have so many right now, I have to take them home to review them,” he said. “It takes so long, it interferes with work here.”

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