published Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Georgia House approves sweeping bill on sentencing reform

ATLANTA — The Georgia House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve a proposal to overhaul Georgia’s criminal justice system by finding more cost-effective ways to deal with nonviolent offenders. It now heads to the Senate.

The House voted 164-1 in favor of the legislation, which quickly cleared a joint legislative panel on the issue earlier this week and appears to have the approval of major stakeholders, including Gov. Nathan Deal.

The governor has touted criminal justice reform as a move that will save tax dollars, improve the state’s rehabilitation rate and keep Georgians safe. According to the committee, Georgia’s prison population has more than doubled in the past two decades to more than 56,000 inmates at a taxpayer cost of more than $1 billion annually.

“Our prison is swelling with nonviolent offenders,” said state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, who was co-chairman of the joint committee. “They’re taking up bed space that we could use for violent offenders. We have to do things smarter.”

Sentencing reform is a large component of the proposal, which also sets up alternative courts to address substance abuse and mental health issues. The measure seeks to shift the approach to drug possession prosecutions to a weight-based system that supporters say will punish violators more fairly.

While the strategy initially raised cost concerns among judges, prosecutors and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Deal administration has signaled they would provide additional funding and reached a compromise to phase in the plan over two years.

The monetary threshold for theft crimes was raised for the first time in more than a generation for most offenses to $1,500. The minimum for shoplifting was capped at $500. And burglaries were divided into three categories, with the most severe penalties reserved for breaking into someone’s home with a weapon.

Other sections of the bill addressed mandatory reporting requirements for suspected child abuse, provisions for restrictions on who can access a jobseeker’s criminal record and a shortened period for suspects being held in probation detention centers.

The Senate is expected to take up the proposal next week.

There are three days remaining in this year’s legislative session.

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