Pro­posed bill could free up jail space with lighter sen­tences

The Covington News - - Front page - AM­BER PITTMAN Staff Re­porter

The Ge­or­gia leg­is­la­ture is con­sid­er­ing a bill that aims to re­duce the num­ber of in­mates and save the state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments money by us­ing some al­ter­na­tive pun­ish­ments.

If ap­proved, House Bill 1176 could have a sig­nif­i­cant af­fect on the New­ton County jail and ju­di­cial sys­tem.

HB 1176 es­sen­tially says lock­ing up non-vi­o­lent criminals is too ex­pen­sive and there are cheaper forms of pun­ish­ment that don’t cost nearly as much but are just as ef­fec­tive.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2011 Spe­cial Coun­cil on Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Re­form for Ge­or­gians, the state spends more than $1 bil­lion a year on pris­ons and the cost of main­tain­ing the cur­rent sen­tenc­ing laws would re­quire the state to spend in ex­cess of $264 mil­lion more over the next five years.

New­ton County had ap­proxi- mately 2,800 misdemeanor cases come through the jail at a daily cost of $45 a day per in­mate, Sher­iff Ezell Brown said in an email.

“Just one day alone would ex­ceed $126,000 with­out med­i­cal ex­penses to house non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers,” Brown said.

The 75-page pro­posed bill pro­poses sev­eral changes, in­clud­ing new cat­e­gories for bur­glary pun­ish­ments.

The sternest of these are re­served for those com­mit­ting bur­glary with a weapon, hurt­ing some­one dur­ing the bur­glary or com­mit­ting the act “af­ter sunset or be­fore sunrise.”

Cur­rently, all bur­glar­ies are treated the same un­der state law. HB 1176 would al­low for less strin­gent pun­ish­ments for the bur­glary of non-dwelling struc­tures.

The bill also pro­poses the felony thresh­old be raised for crimes like shoplift­ing and forgery.

“In­creas­ing the thresh­old for non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers, such as shoplift­ing from $300 to $1,000 and writ­ing bad checks from $500 to $1,000, would take a large num­ber of non­vi­o­lent in­mates out of our sys­tem,” Brown said.

HB 1176 also tack­les pun­ish­ment for il­le­gal drugs. If ap­proved, drug of­fenses would be weight-based, some­thing that may cause a se­ri­ous is­sue with test­ing at the Ge­or­gia Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause it cur­rently does not test weight on all drug cases.

Cur­rently only those deemed a pos­si­ble traf­fick­ing charge are con­sid­ered as such.

Since the GBI does statewide test­ing, the new law could po­ten­tially over­whelm the agency.

“This will cre­ate a new sen­tenc­ing range for drug pos­ses­sion. It will also help ease the cost as­so­ci­ated with jail­ing sub­stance abusers,” Brown said. “This will al­low us to re­al­lo­cate dol­lars into creative, in­no­va­tive law en­force­ment strate­gies, for ex­am­ple, the Of­fender Re­spon­si­bil­ity Life Cour­ses at the New­ton County jail. To date, we have saved over $1 mil­lion in col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts with the ju­di­cial sys­tem.”

Cur­rently, the law says a per­son found guilty of a felony for vi­o­lat­ing codes per­tain­ing to a Sched­ule I or II nar­cotic “shall be pun­ished by im­pris­on­ment for not less than two years nor more than 15 years.”

Un­der the new bill, the law for the same of­fense would be as fol­lows:

“If the ag­gre­gate weight, in­clud­ing any adul­ter­ant or dilu­ent is less than one gram of a solid sub­stance, less than one mil­li­liter of a liq­uid sub­stance, or if the sub­stance is placed onto a sec­ondary medium with a com­bined weight of less than one gram, by im­pris­on­ment for not less than one nor more than five years.”

Ac­cord­ing to Su­pe­rior Court Judge Sa­muel Ozburn, if passed, the bill would “have a big im­pact on sen­tenc­ing.”

An­thony Carter, the Chief Public De­fender in the Al­covy Cir­cuit, said he was in fa­vor of the re­forms.

“Too many peo­ple equate be­ing tough on crime with ware­hous­ing all of­fend­ers in the prison sys­tem.

This ap­proach is not only a waste of state funds, it does noth­ing to ad­dress the rea­sons the in­di­vid­u­als ended up in the sys­tem in the first place,” he said. “The Spe­cial Coun­cil on Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Re­form is made up of a wide va­ri­ety of le­gal pro­fes­sion­als with dif­fer­ent back­grounds and ex­pe­ri­ences.

The coun­cil’s con­clu­sion is that the tax­payer’s money would be bet­ter used by ad­dress­ing the is­sues of sub­stance abuse, men­tal health, and ed­u­ca­tion rather than sink­ing more money into build­ing addi- tional pris­ons.”

A team of 20 se­nior prose­cu­tors con­vened to re­view the bill when it was first an­nounced and make sug­ges­tions. New­ton County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Layla Zon was one of the re­view­ers and said view­points vary among dis­trict at­tor­neys.

“I am care­fully re­view­ing the cur­rent ver­sion of HB 1176 and await­ing any re­vi­sions that might oc­cur to the leg­is­la­tion af­ter some of the re­cent com­mit­tee hear­ings on the bill,” Zon said. “There are con­cerns that have been expressed to the leg­is­la­tors with re­spect to the pro­posed amend­ments, par­tic­u­larly with re­spect to the bur­glary statute and ‘weight­based’ drug pros­e­cu­tion model. I be­lieve there will be changes to the final ver­sion of the leg­is­la­tion and I look for­ward to see­ing the bill af­ter those changes.”

The pro­posed bill would also give judges and prose­cu­tors more flex­i­bil­ity in sen­tenc­ing.

“In gen­eral, I am in fa­vor of main­tain­ing dis­cre­tion at the lo­cal level for the prose­cu­tors and judges,” Zon said. “In each case the facts and cir­cum­stances of the in­di­vid­ual crime and the ag­gra­vat­ing and mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stances are taken into ac­count with re­spect to the ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment a de­fen­dant should re­ceive. The re­vi­sions to this leg­is­la­tion will hope­fully re­flect an un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of that dis­cre­tion.”

Rachel Goff /The Cov­ing­ton News

HB 1176 es­sen­tially says lock­ing up non-vi­o­lent criminals is too ex­pen­sive and that there are cheaper forms of pun­ish­ment that should be used.

Rachel Goff /The Cov­ing­ton News

New­ton County Sher­iff’s Of­fice Cpl. Vin­cent Love­less stands in front of an empty jail cell.

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