Bipartisanship may be uncommon in the political landscape this election year, but for criminal justice reform, two Georgia state legislators worked together to improve the lives of millions with unanimous support in the General Assembly.
At the Sept. 30 Impact Speaker Series, a virtual panel discussed the Second Chance expungement bill, Senate Bill 288 (SB 288), which Governor Brian Kemp signed on Aug. 5. It will take effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
The speakers included Senator Tonya Anderson (D), who represents Senate District 43; Representative Houston Gaines (R), who represents House District 117; Lisa McGahan, the policy director of the Georgia Justice Project (GJP); and Doug Ammar, the executive director of GJP.
Ammar explains that the criminal justice system is broken into three stages: pre-conviction, including policing, arrest and prosecution; incarceration; and re-entry, including correctional control.
“Georgia, unfortunately, has been the winner of the highest number of people per capita under correctional control for a number of years now,” said Ammar.
“One in 18 Georgians are under correctional control. That means jail, prison, probation or parole.”
Ammar estimates 40,000 people are currently in jail awaiting trial for either a felony or misdemeanor, 54,000 people are currently serving time in the prison system and another 400,000 people are under correctional control.
“You still have a criminal record whether you’ve been convicted or even not convicted,” said Ammar.
Ammar relates this to one of the motivating factors behind the bill.
“In Georgia, people who have been through the system or touched the system in any way from the very tip … all the way through, that number in Georgia is 4.3 million, so 40% of Georgians essentially have a criminal record.”
SB 288 is an expungement bill which offers Georgians with criminal records the opportunity to restrict and seal certain misdemeanor convictions four year after completing their sentence.
This removes barriers from employment and housing.
Senator Anderson’s conversations with her constituents played a large role in her inspiration for the bill.
“I realized talking to people being impacted by the fact that they can’t vote, by the fact that they don’t have a job, just kind of getting personal with them, and it sparked me to try to push for some meaningful legislation around criminal justice reform to allow people to get their lives back,” said Anderson.
Similarly, Representative Gaines saw a need for this legislation in Georgia.
“I just felt like it was the right thing to do at the right time for our state,” said Gaines.
“We made some significant progress on criminal justice reform, but I felt like this was an area where we really need to make some more progress.”
Anderson first brought the bill to her Democrat colleagues.
“I went to my leadership and I said ‘This is the bill I want,’ got signatures and I was going to turn the bill in and then I said ‘You know what, I didn’t even ask my Republican colleagues, would they support it,’ and I did,” said Anderson. “I asked two Republican colleagues, they supported it and I submitted my bill.”
Anderson emphasizes the value of building relationships and using them to pass legislation, even with people she had no prior experience with.
“When Representative Houston Gaines introduced it in the House, I didn’t know him,” said Anderson.
“I had never met him before. We met in the hallway. To me, it didn’t matter.”
“I wanted to make sure that this bill is going to impact all of Georgia.”
In March, the bill was introduced and passed the Senate, but the General Assembly took a recess soon thereafter.
“We came back in June and a lot happened between March and June that shifted the mindset and opened the eyes of America concerning racial equality and the criminal justice system.”
“So, as we reconvened at the end of June, I think it was a moment for people to say ‘You know, it’s high time that we move on this legislation to start something that could change the trajectory in Georgia,’” said Anderson.
The panelists discussed how systemic racism has created a criminal justice system that perpetuates disproportionate rates of Black people being convicted with more severe sentences.
There was also a large focus upon the issue of more Black people being incarcerated than white people.
“When this country pushed forward the war on crime, the war on drugs, starting in the beginning of the 80s, … [it] led to this gross disparity of incarceration in this country has, vis-a-vi basically every other country in the world,” said Ammar.
“There’s a similar deeper disparity, if you will, for folk of color who are being arrested, convicted and incarcerated.”
“The unleashing of those … mandatory minimums for instance, is a good example of how we’ve created the mass incarceration numbers in this country.”
While the Black population makes up 32% of the state population, it has been almost two times this number in the Georgia prison system both historically and currently.
Anderson mentions the school-to-prison pipeline.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, this occurs when youth of color, low-income economic classes or with disabilities enter the juvenile justice system due to factors like strict public school disciplinary policies.
“There are longer sentences, there are sometimes over-policing, there are just small things that get people caught up in the system from a tail-light to a wrong left turn or no blinker,” said Anderson.
The focus of SB 288 is on criminal justice, but more work must be done in all areas.
“It is not just about racism. It’s about systemic racism, because it’s not just in the criminal justice system. It’s in education, it’s in economics, it’s just a systemic issue and so we have to go deep,” said Anderson.
Ammar, who has been involved at GJP since 1986, explains that while the challenges of working for change can be frustrating at times, it can also be rewarding.
“I think in the criminal justice work, especially, it’s such a hard arena that you’ve got to have the long view,” said Ammar.
“You’ve got to be willing to put in the time, these are not going to be quick hits and you’re out.”
After much hard work between Anderson and Gaines, SB 288’s passage will impact 4.3 million Georgians.
“One of the things I’m most proud of this piece of legislation for is that it was bipartisan and it was unanimous passage in both chambers,” said Gaines.
Gaines and Anderson both have ideas for future topics to work together on.
“There’s more work we got to do to continue to make sure that Georgians have a second chance,” said Gaines.
“But I can’t overstate how important I think getting this piece of legislation through, getting our foot in the door, because we were one of only nine states that didn’t have something like this.”
Moving forward, Gaines mentions considering offenses not included in SB 228, automatic seals for people once their restriction has been processed and examining the Citizen’s Arrest Statute.
Anderson mentions shortening probation time and ending felony disenfranchisement and unnecessary jail detention for people awaiting trial for low-level offenses.
There are many ways for students to get involved in the legislative process.
“I would encourage students to have those conversations with their legislators, get to know them,” said Gaines. “If you have ideas, research this issue of criminal justice reform, come up with an idea and bring it to Senator Anderson or myself. Go find your local legislator from home.”
“Create an opportunity and start attending council meetings, county commissioner meetings just to see what the process is, how things happen,” said Anderson, who also encourages students to intern at the Georgia State Capitol.
On a final note, the panelists call on youth and students to make a difference.
“College campuses are where conversations are supposed to happen, ideas are supposed to be brought forward, and I would just encourage students to take these conversations back to your student organizations and your student groups,” said Gaines.
Ammar encourages us to think about where we have power and to get close to people who are different from us.
“I think at the heart of racism in this country is an otherness that we as a culture have embraced or has been part of making people other,” said Ammar.
“And I believe that one of the best ways to break through these internal and external barriers that are created, that we have in ourselves, that are in our culture, is to get close to people.”
A recording of the event can be found at the Georgia Tech ISLI YouTube channel.
The Impact Speaker Series is hosted by the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact on Wednesday nights from 5-6 p.m.
The Fall 2020 focus is on race, social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion.
The next event is on Oct. 14 featuring Vivian Greentree, the head of Global Corporate Citizenship at Fiserv Cares Foundation.
Members of the Tech community and the general public are welcome to attend.