House Bill 1176, known as the Comprehensive Sentencing and Corrections Reform Bill, was passed this year by a 162-0 vote in the House, and signed into law May 2 by Gov. Nathan Deal.
The law creates statewide drug and mental health courts and gives judges more sentencing alternatives for nonviolent drug and property crimes, saving prison beds for the most violent offenders.
“Being a criminal defense attorney for 10 years, House Bill 1176 is one of the most significant and important pieces of legislation that a Georgia governor has signed in many years,” said Carrollton attorney Jason Swindle. “It will save our state millions of dollars over the next few years and will assist appropriately in dealing with low-level offenders who are addicted to drugs and alcohol.”
Swindle said the idea for the legislation came from Texas, where the system has been working for some time. Other Southern states, including South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky, have passed similar legislation.
“I anticipate this law will work in Georgia and other states will jump on this very quickly,” Swindle said. “Most crimes are committed because people are addicted to drugs or alcohol. I’ve seen these drug courts work. For society as a whole, we have people getting better and becoming taxpaying citizens in the community.”
The legislation is the result of recommendations by a special council of lawyers, judges and legislators, appointed last year by the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and state Supreme Court chief justice. Then-Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, was named co-chair of a special joint committee that reviewed the council’s recommendations and terms of House Bill 1176.
“Obviously, we have more work to do, but the main focus was slowing down the projected growth in the state’s incarceration rate and getting savings over the next five years,” Hamrick said after the bill passed. “There was $35 million included in the fiscal year 2013 budget for new prison beds. So, that combined with this bill will mean we’ll be in better shape in five years. We believe the taxpayers will benefit from the changes in House Bill 1176. Prison beds should be reserved for violent offenders and drug traffickers. We found that too many low level offenders are being sent to prison, while serious offenders are being paroled extremely, relative to their original sentence. The goal of House Bill 1176 is to use taxpayer dollars more efficiently and improve public safety.”
Hamrick was named by Gov. Deal in September to fill the Coweta District Superior Court judgeship vacancy created when Judge William F. Lee resigned in May.
House Bill 1176 also expands the mandatory reporting of child abuse to include anyone who has reasonable cause to believe that abuse is occurring and it eliminates the statute of limitations for sex crimes committed on a child younger than 16 years of age.
Other new Georgia laws taking effect on Jan. 1 include:
• House Bill 954, known as the fetal pain bill, prohibits abortions when the probable gestational age of the unborn child is found to be 20 weeks or more, except when a physician has deemed a pregnancy is “medically futile,” meaning the unborn child has a profound and irremediable congenital or chromosomal abnormality that would not allow the child to live after birth.
• House Bill 711 will make all communications confidential between victims and advocates at domestic violence and sexual assault centers, and exempts domestic abuse cases from the spousal evidence privilege in criminal proceedings.
• Senate Bill 37 was approved by voter referendum Nov. 6 and amends the state constitution to allow certain agencies to enter into multi-year rental agreements. Previously, Georgia agencies and departments were only allowed to enter into rental agreements of one year or less, and were therefore unable to negotiate long-term, more cost efficient leases.
• Senate Bill 236 will allow first-time DUI offenders, who are 21 years or older, to be eligible for hardship driving permits that allow more freedom of driving, which includes going to work, for medical care, to attend school or college, attend support group meetings, attend court-ordered programs, attend court, report to probation office or transport an immediate family member without a license to work, medical care or school.