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Criminal justice overhaul introduced
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ATLANTA — Seeking to balance public safety with the growing cost of the state's prison system, Georgia lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation to substantially overhaul the criminal justice system, with changes ranging from how courts are run to how offenders are sentenced.

The 75-page proposal filed Monday adopts some of the recommendations a joint committee tasked with tackling the issue made last year.

Gov. Nathan Deal — a former prosecutor and juvenile court judge who has identified criminal justice reform as a priority — has said he will need to see changes to the proposal to bring it more in line with the committee's recommendations.

"The process is intended to reduce costs to taxpayers, and it's his opinion that this bill might actually increase costs," said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson.

The bill's main sponsor, Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, said the goal of the overhaul is to protect public safety while doing it in a way "that is smarter about how we allocate our dollars."

Among the bill's highlights:

— Building a statewide system of drug and mental health courts that offer alternative sentencing for certain offenders and adding more community-based treatment centers for low-level offenders;

— Reducing prison terms for nonviolent offenses;

— Raising the thresholds for suspects charged with certain felonies;

— Revising the punishment and guidelines for crimes including burglary, shoplifting, forgery, and the sale or use of marijuana.

If approved by the Legislature this session and signed into law by Deal, much of the law would be implemented starting July 1.

According to the committee, Georgia's prison population has more than doubled in the past two decades to more than 56,000 inmates at a taxpayer cost of more than $1 billion annually.

Since taking office in January 2010, Deal has touted criminal justice reform as a move that will save tax dollars, improve our rehabilitation rate and keep Georgians safe.

"We have to decide who we're scared of and who we're just mad at," Deal said in a statement. "This is not a 'Get out of Jail Free Card.' If you commit a violent crime in Georgia, you're going to prison, and we'll have more cells to keep you there for as long as needed.

Instead of incarcerating nonviolent offenders, Golick said the bill focuses instead on treatment, which is generally cheaper than housing inmates. While Golick said the 75-page bill largely follows recommendations proposed last year by a joint committee tasked with tackling the issue, the proposal takes "a slightly more conservative approach."

He said changing the criminal justice system could take several years.


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