When the sun set on Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration, many believed that Georgia’s criminal justice reform era had ended, but it appears that the Peach State may be getting its second wind.
While lawmakers introduced several failed criminal justice reform bills since, in the waning days of the 2020 Legislative Session, the Georgia General Assembly successfully approved a reform measure – SB 288. It would permit certain nonviolent, reformed individuals to more easily seal their criminal records.
This is a commonsense step that will help more justice-involved individuals get back to work and be productive members of society. While Governor Brian Kemp should view this as a worthwhile piece of legislation, Georgia ultimately needs to go a step further.
The Peach State was once the country’s epicenter for criminal justice reform, and rightly so. Georgia had one of the nation’s worst justice systems, but even following many years of reform under Governor Nathan Deal, Georgia’s system is still fraught with issues.
Consider this: According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, “Nearly 600,000 Georgians are living with a felony conviction—one in nine adults in the state—and half of Georgia’s adults have a record of some kind.” This far outstrips the national average, but the problem is magnified when you consider that a criminal record can be weaponized and used as a secondary punishment that can last a lifetime.
Around 90 percent of employers and 60 percent of colleges screen applicants’ backgrounds, which can serve as a determining factor over whether someone can further their education or earn an honest living. This has major implications in Georgia too. Before the COVID-19-induced recession, recently incarcerated individuals’ unemployment rate was five times the statewide average, and it may be even higher now.
But if the formerly incarcerated have proven to be rehabilitated and have paid their dues to society, then why should they continue to bear this scarlet letter?
Some states, including Pennsylvania and deep red Utah, don’t believe that many of them should. Thus, they’ve enacted various forms of “Clean Slate” laws. They automatically restrict certain criminal records – excluding more serious infractions like sex crimes – after the person in question has remained crime-free for a specified period of time. And why not? Such policies produce a bevy of benefits for the rehabilitated, their families, and the general public.
Nevertheless, as it stands, Georgia doesn’t have a Clean Slate provision. The state does permit record expungement in limited cases, but it doesn’t go far enough. It isn’t an automatic process and many crimes that should be sealable are not, which can pose a problem.
Automating record clearance is important because under the current system, many people who are eligible never clear their records. Some simply do not know that it is an option, while others do not have the expertise or cannot bear the expense of successfully filing a petition in court—a process that can be both expensive and time-consuming.
All too often, those who have been arrested in Georgia are either underemployed or unable to obtain work because of their record. This increases the likelihood that they might be forced to apply for taxpayer-funded assistance or it may encourage them to turn to crime to make ends meet.
What’s more, this is an extended sentence on their families whom they frequently struggle to support, but providing more options for record expungement would ameliorate these issues. Early results from a University of Michigan study found “that a year after a record is cleared, people are 11 percent more likely to be employed and are earning 22 percent higher wages.”
Keeping rehabilitated Georgians out of the workforce takes a broader toll on Georgia’s economy too. In fact, “[t]hese lost wages amount to an estimated $2.6 billion in wasted spending power across the state,” according to a Georgia Budget and Policy Institute report.
Clean Slate legislation is poised to be a huge success across the country. It will help lower the unemployment rate, provide a natural and much-needed stimulus to our economy, and reduce recidivism rates – keeping the public safer.
The truth is that adopting Clean Slate legislation would be great for Georgia too, and with the 2021 legislative session approaching, the time is right to begin a Clean Slate discussion.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.