ATLANTA — A nearly three-decade veteran of the bench, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein is a big advocate of finding alternatives to locking people up and thinks the state is on the right track with its focus on criminal justice reform.
“We need to be open to new ideas rather than just put them away in prison as long as you can,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. “If you put someone in the prison system, you effectively have harmed their ability to get work, and you probably have harmed them socially, as far as coming out and being a productive citizen.”
She mentioned an example from her time as a DeKalb County Superior Court judge. She had to hand down a mandatory minimum sentence of five years to a 17-year-old who had used a plastic pistol to steal a Starter jacket.
“I had no leeway,” she said. “Now, when that young man comes out, he may have a high school education. He won’t have any college. He will have no career. And it’s going to be very difficult for him to be successful in life.”
Hunstein was part of a panel that presented recommendations to the state Legislature, which resulted in the adoption this year of legislation to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system to provide alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders. The reforms were widely praised and unanimously approved by lawmakers in both chambers. Among the panel’s recommendations were treatment programs for drug offenders and increased supervision of released inmates.
A next step in the process is a focus on juvenile offenders, something Hunstein feels strongly about.
Teenagers don’t necessarily demonstrate the best judgment, but locking them up isn’t always the answer and often makes it more likely they’ll commit future crimes, she said.
“I think we have to address problems with our juveniles to prevent them from becoming adult criminals,” she said.
Locking people up for less time can also save the state enormous sums of money, an advantage that’s not lost on Hunstein. Since she took over as chief justice three years ago, she’s had to deal with substantial budget concerns. During her first year as chief justice, she had to fire some employees and furlough others. She and the other justices volunteered to take unpaid furlough days to keep costs down.
“It’s not quite as bad now as it was, but there were times when we were looking for contributions of pens and pencils and that sort of thing, just to save as much money as possible,” she said.
Hunstein was appointed to the state high court in 1992. She became chief justice in 2009 and has about a year left in her term, after which she’ll continue to serve on the court as a regular justice. She’s thinking ahead and has more ideas for reforming the criminal justice system in Georgia.
“I’m very interested in traffic misdemeanors,” she said. “Most citizens in this state don’t realize that when they plead guilty to most traffic offenses, they are pleading guilty to a misdemeanor.”
That plea can mean a fine and sometimes jail time and makes it so the offender technically has a criminal record, she said. Many states have changed this so that some traffic violations — like speeding or running a red light — are lesser offenses. Hunstein would like to see Georgia make a similar change or at least look into providing a way for most drivers to get that conviction off their record.
She would also like the state to consider a pretrial release program that would allow people accused of certain crimes to be released from jail without paying bond prior to trial. This would ease the burden on the local jail system and would allow people to get on with their lives until their cases are heard.
“When you are put in the jail system and you have to wait to have your case disposed of by the county or the city, you’re talking weeks, sometimes months, which means that you may lose your job, you may lose your apartment, you may lose your home, you may lose your family because you’re waiting there for an adjudication,” she said.