Byline: Walter C. Jones
ATLANTA | Either sentencing reform or the wholesale revision of the juvenile code would result in a major legislative accomplishment, but together, the two issues will yield the most significant change in years in how the state treats law breakers.
And these bills provide a relaxation of the law-and-order stance that has been a hallmark of Georgia jurisprudence.
Past legislatures have tackled one big judicial matter at a time. Whether it was then-Gov. Zell Miller's Two Strikes and You're Out or the tougher sex-offender laws sponsored by Republicans when they took control of the House, the General Assembly has digested its big crime bills one at a time. For example, establishing a statewide system for funding and providing taxpayer-funded lawyers for indigent clients held the spotlight to itself that year.
Frequently, passage of such complex legislation requires multiple hearings, special subcommittees and most of the 40-day legislative session. Then, it usually needs modification over the next session or two to fix unintended consequences or sections invalidated by the Supreme Court.
The heavy lifting is done by the members of the House and Senate judiciary committees, some of the busiest panels in either body. The House had such a staggering work load that it created a second committee, the Judicial Non-Civil Committee, to divide the chore with the House Judiciary Committee.
Next year's heavy agenda resulted from the confluence of two separate initiatives. One originated with the election of a new governor last year. The other started with a project of the State Bar of Georgia seven years ago.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who was once a prosecutor, is sponsoring an idea he got from his son who is a judge that shifts from a punishment orientation for addicts, drunks and the mentally ill to a treatment orientation. Instead of tossing them behind bars, it takes the less costly approach of intensive probation and required counseling
"We have an amazing opportunity to save lives as well as tax dollars," he said. "While we'll never shrink from our duty to protect the public from dangerous criminals, we know that alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders suffering from addiction or mental illness produces much better results."
Since the governor has the support of fellow Republicans who control the two legislative chambers, eventual passage is all but certain. …