A bill unanimously passed by the Georgia Senate could allow tens of thousands of Georgians to have their probation sentences cut short for good behavior.
Lawmakers tried to make it easier to complete a probation sentence in 2017, as part of criminal justice reforms backed by former Gov. Nathan Deal, but Georgia still has a higher per-capita rate of citizens on probation and parole than any other state.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Brian Strickland, a Republican from McDonough, as a result of the work of a bipartisan task force on racial inequity set up by Sen. Bruce Thompson, also a Republican.
Strickland says part of the reason there are still so many people on probation is because there are fewer people incarcerated due to reforms of the criminal justice system.
“It’s great that less people are in jail, but as we’ve seen, when somebody is still sitting on probation, it’s a situation that’s ripe for them to suddenly — because of one mistake they might make — to get stuck in the criminal justice system,” said Strickland.
One in 18 Georgians is on probation, for a total of more than 200,000 on probation in the state.
The length of probation sentences is another contributing factor to Georgia’s high probation rate. Unlike many other states, Georgia does not cap the length of probation sentences.
“So it’s not uncommon for people to be sentenced for decades. Forty percent of all Georgians get a felony probation sentence over 10 years. We know individuals who have gotten 25-, 30- and 40-year probation sentences,” said Lisa McGahan, policy director for the Georgia Justice Project.
Sen. Bruce Thompson says long probation sentences can be a barrier for otherwise productive members of society.
“In many cases, these individuals are talented and qualified, but because of the probationary chain around their neck, they’re not able to reengage and get some of these jobs and put their families back together, and we’re seeking to do that,” Thompson said.
McGahan said between 36,000 and 48,000 people could be eligible to have their probation ended if this bill passes, according to data from the Department of Community Supervision.
For comparison, only a little more than 200 people have successfully completed their probation since 2017.
The new bill would simplify and clarify the process for first-time felony offenders who were sentenced to less than a year in prison.
“It’s a way to make those probation reforms of 2017 work,” McGahan said.
Georgians who have served three or more years of probation are automatically eligible, assuming they have no new offenses, have paid all fees and have not violated the terms of probation. They still must have their case approved by a judge.
Democratic Sen. Tonya Anderson is also a member of the task force that proposed this legislation. She says it’s a step in the right direction, but there is still a lot more to be done on criminal justice reform.
“We can’t be the No. 1 state for business when we can’t be the No. 1 state for criminal justice reform,” Anderson said.
Thompson says his task force will continue to look at other options for criminal justice reform.
“We all have made mistakes in our life, and, frankly, we’re a society right now, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, that believes in second chances,” Thompson said.
The probation reform bill is now headed to be considered by the House.