A few decades ago, the headline would have more likely read that the Georgia Governor signed a “tough” on crime bill, but times are changing in some ways and state lawmakers are beginning to understand that tough penalties and severe punishments aren’t always the best decisions. This week, Governor Nathan Deal signed a bill that would give judges more leeway in imposing mandatory minimum sentences, allowing them to use at least some level of discretion rather than being bound by rules that dictated the same sentence for all similar crimes.
According to the Associated Press, judges will be able to use their discretion in bypassing mandatory minimum sentences in drug-related cases where the defendant isn’t the primary suspect in a larger criminal enterprise. In other words, if the defendant isn’t the head of some large drug trafficking system, the judge can opt for a shorter (and often far more appropriate) sentence.
Mandatory minimum sentences have helped create the incarceration problems our country has today. Our prisons are filled to capacity with many people who have been sentenced under these “tough on crime” standards. The laws essentially removed discretion from the judge and gave them a chart from which to operate, leading to people serving sentences much longer than warranted, in many cases.
“Public safety will be improved by giving prosecutors leverage in certain cases and by ensuring that our prison resources are reserved for the ‘kingpins’ while the ‘mules’ are given a chance at reform,” said Deal at the bill’s signing.
This is especially commendable considering it applies to drug crimes, an area where treatment and even community corrections can help reform men and women who may have committed their offenses while in the throes of addiction. Non-violent drug offenders who are not at the top of the drug-trade totem pole have little place in prisons built to house the most dangerous people in our society.
In addition to the mandatory minimum adjustment, Deal signed a bill creating the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Commission which will review the juvenile and criminal justice systems in the state. There will be 15 governor-appointed council members who will review the justice systems every two years, looking for areas in need of improvement and changes that could keep Georgia’s justice system operating as smoothly as possible.
If rational, however modest, criminal justice reforms are possible in Georgia, they are possible anywhere.