This week we held the State of the Judicial address by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. Just as our governor, serving as chief of our state’s executive branch, visits the House and presents the State of the State address to the General Assembly each year, so to does the chief justice in presenting the State of the Judiciary address. The two biggest issues addressed by Chief Justice Hunstein in her State of the Judiciary address 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, Chief Justice 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, and 2) saving taxpayer dollars. The ultimate goal is to keep Georgians safe.
In some ways Georgia has already begun this process by implementing specialty courts throughout the state, which have seen 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. In fact, a recent report by the Georgia Department of Audits found that our state’s drug courts, which handle nonviolent substance abusing offenders, have resulted in 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. By expanding these specialty courts, the state could save $8 million a year.
To further study criminal justice reform, Gov. Deal, Speaker Ralston, Lt. Gov. Cagle and Chief Justice Hunstein held a press conference Wednesday to announce legislation that would create the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. This council will meet during the interim to study the issues. After the council completes its work, it will submit a report to the General Assembly before the beginning of the next legislative session. The findings of the council will be submitted to the General Assembly for action.
In addition to hearing the State of the Judiciary address and the introduction of legislation to review criminal justice reform, the House also passed several pieces of legislation aimed at increasing the safety of Georgians. One of these was House Bill 40. This legislation would require a bitter tasting agent be added to antifreeze in order to prevent the poisoning of animals and young children.
The cost to add this agent is low. 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. In fact, Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) decided to sponsor the bill and name it “Chief’s Law” after hearing from a Jefferson woman whose dog named Chief passed away after eating food tainted with antifreeze.
Another bill, HB 52, 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, the “Better Bicycling Bill,” 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. Additionally, HB 101 creates minimum state standards for the construction of bicycle lanes and requires cars to yield to bicyclists riding in designated bicycle lanes. Each of these measures is designed to promote the safety of Georgia drivers and bicyclists.
Over the next few weeks the House will begin to vote on more legislation addressing some of our state’s most pressing issues. As your state representative, I need to know how you feel about those issues so that I can make informed decisions.
Please feel free to call me at my Capitol office at (404) 656-5099 or e-mail at email@example.com. Thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.