Individuals with misdemeanors and non-violent records would be given a chance to clear their criminal records as a result of legislation passed this week by the General Assembly.
The second-chance legislation, which was sponsored by state Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, is intended help those with first-time misdemeanors and non-violent felony convictions to petition superior courts to have those records shielded from public view.
The bill is aimed at helping those individuals secure jobs and housing.
Senate Bill 288 cleared the state Senate by a unanimous vote Wednesday afternoon after gaining passage in the House earlier in the day. It now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.
If signed into law, Anderson’s bill would require qualified ex-offenders to wait until four years after completing their sentences before filing a petition. They would have to keep a clean record during that time.
Bill co-sponsor Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, called it a win for criminal justice reform.
“This bill is one of the most important criminal justice reforms we’ve made as a state,” Gaines said.
Douglas County District Attorney Ryan Leonard called it a “positive development” for the state.
“I believe in giving people a second chance and my office has helped many individuals obtain record restrictions within the parameters of the prior law,” Leonard wrote in an email. “We have encountered people who have not gotten into trouble in 10, 20 or 30 years and who have been prevented from getting good jobs based on a prior criminal arrest, not a conviction. Being able to obtain meaningful employment is crucial to breaking the cycle of crime.”
Leonard said under the prior law, a person who was convicted or pled guilty could only obtain a record restriction in limited circumstances through conditional discharge, first offender or retroactive first offender.
If signed into law, the new legislation would not apply to people with convictions for certain domestic and nuisance charges like family violence and stalking, plus other major offenses like sex crimes, drunk driving and child molestation.
Leonard said he disagrees with those who argue an individual’s criminal history should never be “held against them” after the fact.
“A person’s criminal history may be relevant in a number of situations and it ultimately comes down to a balancing test of the public’s right to be on notice for their own safety versus an individual’s right to privacy,” Leonard wrote in the email.
Leonard said the new law has an “appropriate balance” between those interests.
“It allows individuals who have committed low level misdemeanors to not be haunted by those charges for the rest of their lives, yet still allows notice about persons who have convicted of crimes of a violent or sexual nature,” he wrote.
More than 4.4 million people have a criminal record of at least an arrest in Georgia, totaling nearly half the state’s population, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Allowing many of them to block prospective employers or landlords from seeing minor crimes for which they have completed sentences should improve the state’s economic and social environment, Anderson said.