Criminal justice reform efforts in Georgia Legislature collide with back-the-blue mood

By: - January 31, 2022 1:00 am

Criminal justice reform advocates are supporting legislation in 2022 that they say will remove barriers to employment for Georgians with criminal records and suspended driver’s licenses. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Criminal justice reform advocates in Georgia want to build on recent momentum with new legislation to remove barriers that make people with criminal records five times more likely to be jobless than Georgians overall.

The Georgia Justice Project and like-minded organizations are pushing for legislators to pass Senate Bill 257 this year to expand the opportunity for people to expunge conviction records, reduce the number of people whose driver’s licenses have been suspended, and remove hurdles to obtaining occupational licenses.

But some Republican lawmakers are charting a legislative agenda more aligned with boosting law enforcement this election year. For example, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan proposes creating incentives to donate to law enforcement and giving raises to correctional officers this year. 

Well over 4 million Georgians have criminal records, and the state has the longest probation sentences in the country. A law passed in 2021, makes it easier for people to get off probation in the state.

This year, proposals build on 2020’s Senate Bill 288, which removed the 21-year-old age limit for requesting a judge to restrict or seal a criminal history record for two non-violent misdemeanors.

“Under SB 257 if a person gets a pardon, unless it’s a serious, violent felony or sexual offense, the sealing would be automatic so you wouldn’t have to go back to court and ask for that,” said Brenda Smeeton, legal director for Georgia Justice Project.

The lead sponsor of SB 288, Lithonia Democrat Sen. Tonya Anderson, is also carrying SB 257 for this session. 

Under SB 288, the age restriction for most offenses is removed by allowing an individual to seek a court order to seal and restrict up to two misdemeanors from their record, as well as any pardoned offense as long as it was not a violent felony or a sexual offense.

In the case of misdemeanors, the petition must be filed before the court that originally heard the case, and in the case of felonies, the petition must be filed after a pardon has been granted.  

Anderson said SB 257 not only benefits the employee but also the employer who gives an employee a second chance. Expungement of criminal records can result in increased wages, lower chances of re-offending, a stronger economy, and reduced homelessness, she said.

“We want to see Georgia thrive as not just the No. 1 place for business, but we have to be the No. 1 place for criminal justice reform and for lowering those numbers in the probation space,” Anderson said.

Marilynn Winn, co-founder and executive director of Women on the Rise, said Anderson’s bill will deliver long-term relief for many more people thanks to the 2020 legislation.

“You can imagine how this new bill would impact the lives of so many towards criminal backgrounds,” she said. “They will be able to get jobs, become productive tax-paying citizens and pay revenues back to the state.”

Peter Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said that the organization needs to review the justice project’s plans, but their relationship has been critical in reforms to the criminal justice system.

“We have worked very closely with the Georgia Justice Project in the past and it’s been a very good relationship and we will continue to work with them,” he said.

In addition, the justice project aims to reduce the number of 105,000 Georgians whose licenses are suspended every year for failing to appear in traffic court.

Losing that license can make it more difficult to keep a job, with about 80% of Georgians driving to work. Data suggests that having a license has a larger impact on employment than a GED certificate, Georgia Justice Project attorney Wade Askew said.

Roughly 50,000 people are arrested in Georgia each year for driving on a suspended license.

“Because a lot of folks need their license back, what we hear is that a lot of people take the fastest route to a resolution possible which is to take a guilty plea,” Askew said. 

They must pay off the court fines and a reinstatement fee to the Department of Driver Services in order to regain their license. Among the solutions would be to reinstate a person’s license once they appear in court if the suspension had nothing to do with the underlying ticket or public safety.

Askew also said judges should be given latitude in deciding whether the license should be revoked in the first place.

“We’ve created a vicious cycle in Georgia that puts people deeper into poverty, meanwhile the court is less likely to have those fines and fees paid off because someone has lost a job,” he said.

The groups also want some restrictions loosened for occupational licenses. Georgia requires licenses for dieticians, EMTs, housekeepers, and nail technicians and many other professions require state-issued licenses. 

Under Georgia law, 42 licensing boards and agencies must consider criminal records when determining license eligibility, but nine boards and agencies are not required to do so.

All licensing boards should consider only recent and relevant convictions, while expungements and pardons should be recognized by all licensing boards, said Emmy Williams, an Equal Justice Works attorney.

The Georgia Interfaith Public Policy Center’s Carole Maddux said the organization’s mission is to support people with criminal records who are seeking a fresh start.

“We should do everything we can when people want to turn around their lives to help them,” she said. “Whatever that takes, whether it may means not putting barriers in the way of licensure.”

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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