ATLANTA — Despite the back-slapping and congratulations about unanimous support in the General Assembly for revision to the criminal justice code, the new legislation awaiting the governor’s signature has no impact on the tens of thousands of Georgians behind bars.
“The answer to the question ‘Will it do anything for people already in prison?’ is almost completely ‘no,’” said Sara Totonchi, the policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights.
If it receives Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature, the bill would reduce sentences for low-dollar thefts, forgery, burglary and small-time drug offenses committed after the law is enacted. People already convicted must serve out the sentences for the law they broke at the time, not the new one, experts say.
The original draft of the measure, House Bill 1176, included a provision that would have moved those with long sentences to probation six months before their release to ease their transition to society. The 13-member commission that authored the basis for HB 1176 recommended it.
“In 2010, 7,495 offenders released from prison had no parole supervision to follow. Of those offenders, 1,592 also had no probation supervision to follow, meaning that they were released from prison with no supervision at all,” the commission’s November report said. “These offenders include serious and even some chronic offenders, and by requiring that offenders serve time on parole, parole officers can provide supervision while these offenders transition back into the community.”
The commission also advised rewarding offenders for good behavior by reducing their probation.
“We did not see any of those make it to the finish line in this bill,” Totonchi said.
Both the transition and the rewards are missing from the version sitting on the governor’s desk.
Some critics charged that conservative legislators stripped them to avoid looking soft on crime during an election year, happy to consider the reforms for low-level, nonviolent offenses that survived but not those affecting hardened, violent criminals already in the system.
“I suggest to you that there were no political reasons,” said one of the key sponsors of the bill, Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette. “When you look at sentencing law, we cannot change that law retroactively.”
Actually, it was a question of constitutionality, according to Neal, one of Deal’s floor leaders. Despite the commission having three sitting judges and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the recommendations were unconstitutional, Neal said, based on a letter from Attorney General Sam Olens.
Georgia’s constitution takes the power to shorten sentences – even death sentences – from governors and legislators and puts it into the hands of five appointed members of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. In recent years, the board has sporadically implemented what experts call “evidence-based practices” to reward good behavior for parolees and gauge which inmates have the lowest risk of violence or repeat offenses, making them candidates for parole.
Those policies need to be in the law, the commission said, and they need to be expanded.
Neal said the bill was not the only avenue for action.
“We’re looking at doing some things, and some of it is in the legislation and some of it the governor can do administratively,” Neal said.
Hiring additional probation and parole officers and graduating the sanctions for bad behavior without resorting to more prison time for technical violations are two the legislator mentioned.
That is good news for prisoner-rights groups.
“If we want to see the cost savings that have been promised with regard to our prison system, the changes must be far more bold and innovative than what we did in 2012,” Totonchi said.