A key legislative committee on Tuesday approved sweeping changes to Georgia’s criminal justice system in a sentencing reform package intended to control prison spending and ensure costly prison beds are reserved for the state’s most dangerous criminals.

Sen. John Crosby, R-Tifton, looks over House Bill 1176 during a Special Joint Committee on Georgia Criminal Justice Reform on March 20, 2012.

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The legislation, approved by the Special Joint Committee on Georgia Criminal Justice Reform, is a key part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s legislative agenda. House Bill 1176 must be approved by the House and the Senate before the governor can sign it into law.

The committee approved several recommendations made by a council comprised of judges, lawyers, lawmakers and other officials who were appointed last year to study Georgia’s approach to criminal sentencing. The impetus behind the initiative has been fueled by the $1 billion-plus corrections budget and projections that taxpayers will have to spend another $264 million for more prison beds over the next five years if no changes are made to current sentencing laws.

When HB 1176 was introduced last month, it received a lukewarm welcome from Deal, who expressed concern it did not go far enough to reduce projected increases in the prison population. Since then, a number of substitutes have been considered and updated, including a new version that was released shortly before the special committee met Tuesday afternoon.

Committee co-chair Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, said the omnibus bill is expected to be considered by the House on Wednesday and is projected to save money on prison spending without making any “radical, too-fast changes” to the criminal justice system. “The primary objective here is to have a smart justice system that does not sacrifice one inch on public safety,” he said.

Late Tuesday, a spokesman for Deal said, “The governor remains intimately involved in seeing this legislation through the General Assembly, and he’s confident legislators will deliver a product that will save lives and save tax dollars.”

Key provisions of the bill create new categories of punishment for drug possession crimes, with less severe penalties for those found with small quantities to the most severe penalties available for those possessing large amounts of drugs. Judges would be allowed to impose a sentence of no more than three years for possession of less than a gram of drugs, for example, and be allowed to give a sentence of up to 15 years in prison for those found possessing between four and 28 grams of narcotics.

The panel sought to allay concerns by prosecutors and GBI Director Vernon Keenan who had warned that the state crime lab would be inundated with new cases — at an estimated cost in the millions of dollars — because drugs that are confiscated will have to be weighed before any sentences are imposed. For this reason, Golick said, these new provisions are to be implemented in two stages, the first in July 2013 and the next a year later, so more resources can be dedicated to handle the added expense.

HB 1176 also would:

Increase the felony threshold for shoplifting from $300 to $500.
Create three categories for burglaries, with more severe punishment (up to 30 years) for break-ins of dwellings by burglars who are armed, cause physical harm to a resident or had twice been convicted of burglary, with the least severe penalties (up to five years) for those who break into unoccupied structures or buildings.

Increase the felony threshold for theft to $1,500, with the harshest punishment (up to 20 years) for thefts of property worth more than $25,000 and less severe penalties (up to five years) for thefts of property worth between $1,500 and $5,000.

Create degrees of forgery offenses, with graduated punishment for the type of offense and amount of money involved.

HB 1176 also would do more than change the state’s criminal sentencing laws.

It would eliminate the statute of limitations for prosecuting allegations of child molestation, expand the number of persons required to report suspicions of child abuse and allow judges to restrict records from being made available to employers of people who had previously been charged, but not convicted, of a crime.

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News Hawk – 420 Warrior 420 MAGAZINE
Location: Atlanta, GA
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Bill Rankin
Contact: www.ajc.com
Copyright: 2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Website: www.ajc.com