Last week was the fourth week of the 2013 legislative session, and on Feb. 7 the House of Representatives and Senate went into a joint session for the State of the Judiciary Address. We welcomed Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and members of the Supreme Court and the Georgia Court of Appeals.
In her address, Chief Justice Hunstein focused on the state’s ongoing criminal justice reforms. These reforms first started in 2011, when the General Assembly created the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Since then, the council has worked diligently to find ways to protect the public’s safety and hold offenders accountable, all while keeping an eye on the financial impact to the state budget. Last year these efforts resulted in the enactment of legislation aimed at moving non-violent and low-level offenders away from costly prison beds and into more effective drug and mental health courts and treatment programs.
According to Chief Justice Hunstein, the new law is already producing positive results for the state. For example, expanding the number of state drug and mental health courts, as well as the number of substance abuse and mental health treatment centers, has put the state on track to save $264 million in prison expenses over the next five years.
Chief Justice Hunstein went on to say that since the criminal justice reforms for adult offenders have begun to produce positive results, the special council is now looking into ways to better handle youth who break the law. Nearly 2,000 children in Georgia currently live in a youth prison, youth jail, or state residential program, such as a group home. More than half of these children were sent to these state facilities for committing non-violent offenses, and 25 percent are there for misdemeanor or status offenses that would not be a crime if committed by an adult.
All too often, children are sent to these facilities because of a lack of community-based programs. This leaves juvenile judges with no alternative but to send these children to locked detention centers. This problem unfortunately puts some non-violent children on a path to adult criminality. Given that it costs the state $91,000 per year to house one child in a correctional facility and that 65 percent of the children in these facilities will commit another offense within three years of getting out, it seems clear that taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth.
Legislation that would substantially rewrite Georgia’s criminal justice code is being developed for consideration later in the session.
On Feb. 8, the House passed HB 105, the Amended Fiscal Year 2013 (AFY 2013) state budget. Each year, the amended budget takes into account the difference between the expected revenue used to create the fiscal year budget and a more accurate estimate obtained halfway through that fiscal year. Since the state has not reached the level of economic growth predicted last year, the AFY 2013 state budget reduces current state spending by $26.3 million.
Despite this reduction, we are still able to make the budget meet the growing needs of the state by adjusting some of the state’s revenue sources and enacting budget cuts to most state agencies. These proactive measures allowed us to add $245 million for Medicaid and completely eliminate cuts to Georgia Youth Science and Technology Centers. We were also able to soften reductions to key education programs.
Like all legislation, the AFY 2013 budget must still be considered by the state Senate. This means that it may change as we work alongside our Senate counterparts. As this process continues, I will keep you updated on the state budget and other important legislation.
I co-sponsored consumer protection legislation last week that would require service contract providers to give advance notice prior to any automatic renewals of the contract. HB 234 calls for written or electronic notification of between 30 and 60 days to consumers that the contract is scheduled to automatically renew. The notification must clearly state that the contract will renew unless canceled by the consumer, along with methods by which the consumer may obtain details of the contract’s automatic renewal provision.
HB 234, which has strong bipartisan support, was referred to the House Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee for its consideration.
Also last week, a special subcommittee of the House Rules Committee made changes to proposed ethics legislation to ensure that provisions expanding the definition of a lobbyist do not infringe upon an individual’s right to free speech. The House is expected to take action in the coming week on HB 142 and HB 143, which were introduced by Speaker David Ralston to strengthen the restrictions on lobbyists’ dealings with Georgia legislators.
The proposal includes a complete ban on lobbyists’ spending on individual legislators for meals, gift and other entertainment. The legislation would also restore rule-making authority to the State Ethics Commission and strengthens requirements for legislators to report on campaign contributions they receive.
Rep. Carl Von Epps (D-LaGrange), Georgia House District 132. During the legislative session, contact me at 512 Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Atlanta, GA 30334; by phone at 404-656-7859; or by email at email@example.com.