A new sentencing reform bill is barreling through the state legislature in cash-strapped Georgia this week.
Read up on the reform effort here and here.
House Bill 1176, approved by a 51-0 vote, is intended to steer some low-level offenders to pretrial diversion programs such as drug and mental health courts and reserve the prison system for the state's most dangerous criminals.
The initiative is a top priority of Gov. Nathan Deal. The legislation must be approved once more by the House before it goes to the governor's desk for Deal's signature. House passage is a near certainty, as it initially passed the chamber with almost unanimous support.
"HB 1176 outlines much-needed reforms that will improve public safety, lower recidivism rates and bring real costs savings to Georgia taxpayers," Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, who handled the bill in the Senate, said. "Without action, taxpayers would have paid $264 million over the next five years to accommodate a rising prison population." ...
A key provision of HB 1176 would create new categories for drug possession crimes, with less severe penalties for those caught with small amounts of narcotics and the most severe penalties for those found with large quantities. It also would increase the felony thresholds for theft and shoplifting crimes.Unfortunately, the bill does not eliminate any mandatory minimum sentences or create a "safety valve" exception to them.
And, alas, it appears that this reform won't pass without some doomsday predictions from -- you guessed it -- law enforcement:
In an email last week to Putnam County residents, Sheriff Howard Sills strongly criticized HB 1176.
"Every thief, burglar, check forger and hoodlum from Trenton to Tybee, from Bainbridge to Blue Ridge will be grinning from ear to ear if this passes," Sills wrote. "When it comes to being soft on crime, this legislation will nestle our miscreants in a down-filled feather bed of comfort they never remotely thought they could slumber in."
Sara Totonchi, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, disagreed. The bill, she said, "implements a very modest slice" of the reforms recommended by a special council of judges, lawyers and other officials that held meetings and issued a report on the initiative.
"If Georgia is to realize the crucial cost-saving and public safety benefits that have been promised, future reforms must be far more bold and innovative than what we've seen in 2012," Totonchi said.We agree with Totonchi's sentiments.
Some free advice for Georgia state legislators who want to see more sentencing reforms in the future: as soon as the bill becomes law, start keeping track of the cost savings and recidivism rates of the people who get diverted from prison. That way, the next time a sentencing reform bill comes along, you can hopefully respond to people like Sheriff Sills with data -- hard evidence -- showing that the sky didn't fall, we weren't put in greater danger, and we all saved big bucks.