ATLANTA -- The Georgia House overwhelmingly adopted a proposed constitutional amendment Friday to start the process of ending prison parole, overcoming Republican objections that the General Assembly was perpetrating an "election-year scam."
The proposed amendment, which needed a two-thirds majority to win a spot on the November ballot, passed 141-30 after a spirited debate about what the measure will ultimately do to stop the early release of felons.
"This bill, the way it's written, is pure bull," said state Rep. Ralph Johnston, R-Duluth, echoing the sentiments of many Republicans.
The Senate passed the resolution Monday. However, because of amendments added by the House, senators will have to approve some wording changes in the measure before it goes on the ballot.
The Democratic leadership in the General Assembly had promised to pass an income tax cut and the parole resolution within the first two weeks of the 1998 session. Friday marked the end of the second week. The $205 million income tax cut was signed into law Wednesday.
The proposed amendment would give the General Assembly the authority, starting in 1999, to deny parole for whatever crimes it specifies.
House Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry, said lawmakers will likely end parole for the "worst crimes," including most felonies. Early release has already been eliminated in Georgia for violent crimes like murder.
House Republicans denounced the measure because it doesn't specify up front which crimes would be covered.
"This is nothing but a hoodwink scam on the state of Georgia," said state Rep. H. Doug Everett, R-Albany.
"As it's written, it does nothing. It is nothing more than an election-year scam," added House Minority Leader Bob Irvin, R-Atlanta. "It's designed to deceive the people of this state into believing the General Assembly is a abolishing parole."
However, Mr. Walker and other Democrats argued it would be irresponsible to put individual crimes in the proposed amendment before lawmakers had studied the implications, including the cost, of the mandate. Getting those estimates would have caused the Democrats to miss their deadline for passage.
Projections have ranged from $1.6 billion to $8 billion over the next 10 years, depending in part on the number and types of crimes.
Mr. Walker told black Democratic colleagues they had a "right to have some reservations" about ending parole. Black criminals have historically been treated more harshly by the judicial system than white criminals, he said.
"We are going to make it tough on a black man that rapes a white woman ... but we're going to make it tough on a white man who rapes a black woman," he said. "We will be tough on anybody who commits crimes in this state."
Mr. Walker called it "demagoguery" for Republicans to claim the amendment wasn't tough enough on crime.
"If we're not being tough enough on crime in this state, nobody is being tough enough on crime," he said.
The House voted down two amendments to list crimes that would fit under the mandate and another to eliminate parole for child molesters.
Also Friday, the House approved a bill setting up a commission to revamp sentences. Studies show a crime in Georgia can bring vastly different sentences, depending on where a case is prosecuted. The House backed the commission 167-0. The Senate had earlier approved the legislation.
A full version of the proposed amendment, Georgia Senate Resolution 463, can be accessed on the Internet.