Decision time for police funding and other law and order legislation

Gov. Brian Kemp Friday is scheduled to sign a controversial bill that restricts how much police budgets can be cut by local governments. The legislation is among several pending criminal justice measures lawmakers passed in 2021 that could still become law. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Gov. Brian Kemp is set to sign a controversial bill to block local governments from slashing police budgets Friday as a Monday deadline looms for him to sign, veto or get out of the way of legislation passed in 2021. 

The legislation aims to preempt local governments from reducing law enforcement budgets by more than 5% from the prior year or over five years is one of the several criminal justice measures state legislators passed still on track to become law this year.  

Kemp is scheduled to sign the so-called anti-defund the police bill at the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office gun range. Supporters say the measure protects police funding after Atlanta and Athens-Clarke County officials briefly considered redirecting resources to social programs.

The Republican-backed legislation marked a flashpoint in the 2021 legislative session,  when political opponents sometimes joined forces to pass milestone criminal justice reform while other times a vast divide remained over the role law enforcement should play on the heels of a year of racial and social unrest. 

Among the other bills passed this year that could still become law include ones that provide stiffer penalties for porch piracy and revenge porn. 

This year’s session concluded with overwhelming support for two measures favored by criminal justice reform advocates — early probation termination and a citizen’s arrest law overhaul. 

Earlier this week, Kemp signed off on a law that the nonprofit Georgia Justice Project estimates immediately makes 25% of the 191,000 people on felony probation eligible to apply for early termination of supervision if they meet benchmarks.

And on Monday, Kemp is expected to officially repeal the 1863 statute initially cited by south Georgia prosecutors as justification for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man gunned down in a suburban Brunswick neighborhood in February 2020.

Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, said it’s past due for Georgia to end its citizen’s arrest law that can have deadly consequences as well as overhaul a probation system where Black people are significantly more likely to be under supervision than white offenders.

Under the new law, a probationer can apply to be taken off supervision after serving three years of probation, paying restitution, and staying out of more legal trouble. 

“To me, they’re both no-brainer pieces of legislation that reflect the reality that we have a lot of work to do to take the Jim Crow out of our criminal legal system,” McLaurin said. “We have a system of mass incarceration that has its roots in racism and slavery.”

The changes in Georgia’s probation sentencing marks a turning point in a state with the highest number of probationers in the nation, said Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project.

Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican and attorney who sponsored the probation bill, was one of the key forces helping navigate the long road to get the legislation to this point, Ammar said.

“We are thrilled that many Georgians who have proven their rehabilitation will now have access to early termination of their probation,” he said.

Another bill that cleared the General Assembly and could go into effect next week is Democratic Sen. Harold Jones’s anti-revenge porn measure that makes it a felony to harass someone by distributing sexually explicit images of them.

And anyone caught stealing at least 10 packages off of someone’s steps could soon face a felony charge if House Bill 94 goes into effect. Critics of the measure say it’s an overreach since laws already address mail theft.

Police bills, juvenile justice take center stage

Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, counts one of the significant victories for the organization in the Legislature this year in fending off a proposal to require officers to wear body cameras.

Many sheriffs found the body camera mandate too costly and open records requests for the recordings too burdensome, he said. 

But this year’s legislative session also saw the failure of proposals dealing with police interaction with the public and regulating protesters failing to cross the finish line. 

Those GOP-sponsored measures would have required education materials created for new drivers to learn the “best practices” of dealing with police officers, while another plan called for stiffer legal consequences for crimes committed during protests and required organizers to get government approval for protests.