In a joint session with the Senate, the House of Representatives welcomed Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein to the House as she presented the annual State of the Judiciary address.
As Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Hunstein leads the highest state court in Georgia, our seven-member state Supreme Court, and also presides over our state’s entire judicial branch.
The two biggest issues addressed by Hunstein this week were sentence reform and specialty courts.
Noting that Georgia’s judiciary has worked to streamline its operations to create an efficient and cost-effective justice system, Hunstein began her speech by calling for sentence reform in Georgia.
Currently, Georgia has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, costing the state more than $1 billion annually.
The ongoing economic recession and resulting budget constraints have made it clear that we literally cannot afford to continue this high incarceration system.
Many states, including Texas and South Carolina, have already discovered they can keep the public safer and spend less money by supervising some non-violent offenders outside of prison and treating the root causes of their crimes.
Here in Georgia, we are now looking at alternatives to incarceration for certain offenders with two goals in mind:
1. Improving public safety.
2. Saving taxpayer dollars.
The ultimate goal is to make criminals into law-abiding taxpayers, not tax burdens.
Georgia has already begun this process by implementing specialty courts throughout the state with amazing success.
Georgia’s drug courts, DUI courts, and mental health courts have become models for the nation. Please do not think these are feel-good, soft-on-crime alternatives to prison. Rather, specialty courts keep the public safer by breaking the cycle of crime through a combination of treatment and strict accountability measures for non-violent offenders.
A recent report by the Georgia Department of Audits found that our state’s drug courts (which handle nonviolent substance abusing offenders) have lower sentencing costs and lower rates of repeat offenders. The report also found that drug courts cost up to 80 percent less than the average daily cost of other traditional sentencing options.
To further study criminal justice reform, Gov. Nathan Deal, House Speaker David Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Chief Justice Carol Hunstein held a press conference last Wednesday to announce legislation that would create a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. The council will meet during the interim to study this issue, much in the same way the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians reviewed our state tax code. After the council completes its work, it will submit a report to the General Assembly before the beginning of the next legislative session. That report will then be turned into legislation.
After hearing the State of the Judiciary address and the introduction of legislation to review criminal justice reform, the House passed several pieces of legislation aimed at increasing the safety of Georgians.
One of these was House Bill 40. The legislation would require that a bitter tasting agent be added to antifreeze in order to prevent the poisoning of animals and young children.
This is necessary because antifreeze contains a substance that has a pleasant aroma and sweet flavor, tempting animals and children to drink the highly poisonous liquid.
The problem has become so prevalent that the Humane Society of the United States estimates that more than 10,000 animals are poisoned each year after ingesting antifreeze. This has led six other states to pass legislation similar to HB 40.
Another animal bill passed by the House is HB 52, which provides greater access and protections for service dogs. Specifically, this legislation grants access for service and guide dogs to public and private schools, colleges and universities.
Further, it prohibits the requirement of any additional payment by a disabled person for a service dog’s access to areas open to the public.
HB 101 is referred to as the “Better Bicycling Bill.” It would improve bicyclist safety by modernizing Georgia’s outdated bicycle codes. Under this legislation, bicyclists would have to stay to the far right portion of roads whenever possible, pedal in the same direction as traffic, and put a red rear light on the backs of their bikes when riding at night. Several constituents have mentioned that bikers riding from dusk to dark without rear lights are in real danger of being hit by vehicles. Our mountain roads present special difficulties in daylight and even more at night.
Each of these measures is designed to promote the safety of Georgia drivers and bicyclists. Now that House Bills 40, 52 and 101 have passed the House, they will make their way through the Senate committee process. If passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, these bills will become law.
My Saturday morning breakfast with constituents continues on Feb. 26 at 8:30 a.m. at Ryan’s in Dawson County. On March 5 and 12 we will meet at 8 a.m. at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Dahlonega.
Rep. Amos Amerson can be reached at 401 Capital Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30334; phone (404) 657-8534; fax (404) 463-2044; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Or contact Gerald Lewy at (706) 344-7788.