Georgians interminably entangled in the parole system may finally have a chance at getting on with their lives through an early end to probation under a bill headed to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.
Senate Bill 105 creates a uniform path to getting more Georgians serving supervised felony probation quickly through the system and out of the chokehold of probation. That, in turn, would enable them to regain certain rights such as voting and returning to work.
In Georgia, as long as a person is serving felony probation or parole, they are unable to vote, according to the state constitution. That’s a big problem in Georgia where about 225,000 people are currently on felony probation or parole, Doug Ammar, executive director of Georgia Justice Project told Atlanta Civic Circle. That’s three times the national average, Ammar noted.
If SB 105 becomes law, individuals who’ve served at least three years of probation and who have proven their rehabilitation will have access to early termination. They will also have to have paid all restitution, have no technical revocations in the last two years and no new offenses. A judge would have to still consider and grant the termination.
“Despite all the work we have done as legislators to reform and rethink the criminal justice system, Georgia still has the largest number of individuals serving probation in the country,” Ga. Sen. Brian Strickland (R-McDonough), a lawyer and one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. “SB 105 address this problem.”
Ammar called SB 105 a game-changer.
“This is huge. It’s looking good that the governor will sign it,” Ammar told Atlanta Civic Circle. “In one fell swoop, this bill will start the process of getting thousands of people out of the probation system. SB 105 is a meaningful step towards reducing the number of individuals unnecessarily serving a probation sentence. As soon as your sentence is over, you can re-register to vote.”
To advocates like the Georgia Justice Project, the bill is a good sign during a legislative session that has been marked by, some would argue, relative hostility toward voting rights issues. The bill is among so-called Second Chance initiatives which are designed to help people who’ve been arrested or impacted by the criminal justice system successfully re-enter society.
Georgia has more people on probation than any other state in the country. More than 40 percent of probation sentences are 10 years or longer, Ammar said, with the average sentence being 6.3 years. More than half of states nationwide limit probation to no more than five years.
Ammar told Atlanta Civic Circle that some judges in Fulton County — often viewed as one of the more progressive places in Georgia — have handed down as many as 80 years probation to individuals.
“We have a client right now who is on 30 years probation for a drug case,” Ammar noted.
The probation system in Georgia also has stark racial inequities. In every county in Georgia, Ammar said a Black person is at least twice as likely as a White person to be serving a probation sentence. In some counties, it’s eight times more likely. The disparity is even more prevalent in Atlanta, Ammar said.
“People of color are disproportionately impacted by every aspect of the criminal justice system,” Ammar said. “The vast majority of individuals under correctional control are those serving a probation sentence. Georgia is one of the few states that continues to give lengthy probation sentences – sometimes decades-long — well after research says they are useful.”
For the past five years, Georgia’s attempts to reform its probation system have fallen short. A reform bill was passed in 2017, but it has yielded little progress. Of the roughly 50,000 people eligible for early termination of their probation since that time, only 213 people got it, Ammar said.
“The structure of the reform four years ago was confusing and convoluted,” Ammar said.” [This bill] will remove barriers. We took the structure for the last bill and made it faster, clearer, easier and better.”
The Georgia Justice Project is among a number of organizations that have been working to fix policies within the probation and criminal justice system.
Want to know about Georgia’s probation system? Click here.