We began the 153rd Legislative Session of the Georgia General Assembly on Jan. 12. Last Monday marked the first day of the 2015-2016 term, all the members of the Georgia House of Representatives were sworn into office. We then promptly got to work on our first order of business: Electing leaders to guide the Georgia House of Representatives through our next two years of public service.
After hearing the nominations, Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) and Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones (R-Milton) were both reelected to their respective positions. Gov. Nathan Deal also held his inauguration in the House Chamber that day.
Gov. Deal also delivered his annual State of the State address in the House Chamber on Jan. 14.
This annual speech before a joint legislature, judiciary, special guests and the public gives the governor the opportunity to convey his assessment of the current condition of our state government and goals for continued progress and success in the new year.
I also had a busy week as I started introducing legislation that I have been working on for the past year. One of these bills was the GED Employer Tax Credit bill discussed in last week's article.
I also introduced a bill that will dramatically change how the board of pardons and parole operates. The parole board is made up of five members who are each appointed for seven year terms by the Governor. Once they are appointed they cannot be removed from office unless they are impeached by the General Assembly.
The board is created in the Georgia Constitution and has a great deal of power. They decide when and who is released from the state prison system. They decide who receives a pardon and receives their rights back to vote and to carry a firearm. They also have the power to commute a death sentence to life in prison.
Recently, the parole board commuted the death sentence of Tommy Lee Waldrip to life. Waldrip was sentenced in 1994 by a jury to death for the 1991 murder of Keith Evans a Dawson County resident.
I was personally involved in working this case as an investigator with the Dawson County Sheriff's Office.
Evans was an innocent victim of a terrible crime and the case against Waldrip had been upheld by multiple courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, over the last 20 years. He was finally set to be executed in 2014.
The day before his scheduled execution the parole board held a hearing and voted to commute the sentence. The family of Evans was devastated and sought to find out why the parole board made their decision.
Under the current law all decisions made by the board, including how each member votes, is protected from the public. The board refused to give any reason to the family, the district attorney or the law enforcement officers involved in the case concerning their decision. This has prevented the family and those close to the case from being able to achieve any sense of closure.
The board has also recently been in the news for issues surrounding granting pardons to individuals who have been convicted of serious felonies in our state.
Currently, individuals receive pardons for crimes without the victim or the prosecuting attorney being notified or given the opportunity to submit information to the board for consideration.
In one case, a sex offender was pardoned and no longer required to register as a sex offender. The district attorney in the jurisdiction where he lived was preparing to charge him with failure to register, when he learned of the pardon. When he inquired with the parole board, he was unable to get any information due to the secrecy that the board operates under.
If the bill passes and becomes law, major changes will occur in how the board operates and what information is released to victims and to the public.
They would be required to notify the victim and the prosecutor prior to considering a pardon. The victim and the prosecutor would have ample opportunity to submit information to the board for their consideration. The decision of the board would then be made public, including how each board member voted.
The information used by the board to reach their decision would also be subject to review by the public with some limited exceptions. This same procedure would be followed in considering commuting a death sentence. This will allow victims and their families the opportunity to reach closure even if they do not agree with the decision.
As with all state agencies, the parole board is funded by our state tax dollars. It is important that our state and its agencies operate in a transparent way to help build public trust. I am hopeful this legislation will be a positive step in that direction.
I look forward to continuing to work to achieve this goal.
We have had two great informational breakfasts the past two Saturdays with great turnouts. This Saturday, Jan. 24, we will be at Ryan's at 9 a.m. I look forward to seeing each of you there.
I am honored to serve as your Representative at the State Capitol. I am always available to assist you and encourage you to contact me with questions or your opinions.
Rep. Kevin Tanner can be reached on his cell phone at (678) 776-5059, at the Capitol at (404) 656-0152 or by email at email@example.com.