Yesterday, Georgia Justice Project (GJP) hosted a lobby day at the Capitol which aimed to “enhance the chance” for Georgians with a criminal record to find employment. Concerned advocates traveled from as far as far as Albany to the State Capitol to voice their support for SB 365, a bill which captures a number of recommendations made by the Governor’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform to increase employment opportunities for ex-offenders (read the report here).
Before the 125+ advocates who attended the GJP’s Lobby Day met with legislators, the team at GJP provided a brief run-down of what the bill says, how the legislative process works, and what to say when talking with one’s legislator. Information packets were handed out explaining the nuts and bolts of SB 365, making it as easy as possible for participants to advocate for the recommendations made in the bill.
It a nutshell, SB 365 makes three important reforms that will assist ex-offenders in obtaining employment: (1) It mandates that private background check agencies update their criminal history information on a monthly basis and permanently delete any records that have been restricted or of persons who have been exonerated (absolved from guilt); (2) It protects employers from being accused of negligent hiring if they hire ex-offenders who have received a Program and Treatment Completion Certificate or a pardon; (3) It gives judges discretion in determining whether an offender’s license should be suspended or not for a non-driving-related drug offense.
After the brief orientation, advocates headed to the House Chamber to speak with their representatives. Staff at GJP and other volunteers instructed advocates on how to page their legislator at the ropes outside of the chamber in order to speak with them.
I had the chance to speak with Rep. Tom Rice (R-95) from Norcross about SB 365. Rep. Rice spoke in favor of the bill and mentioned that he has seen virtually no opposition to it in the House. His remarks confirm what we saw in the Senate last Thursday, February 26, as the bill passed unanimously with a vote of 53-0. The bipartisan support for this bill is strong as both parties acknowledge the importance of removing unnecessary obstacles to employment for those who carry a criminal record.
GJP’s Lobby Day at the Capitol finished as Executive Director Jay Neal of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support, and Reentry addressed the group of advocates who participated in the effort. He expressed his appreciation for people coming out to voice their support for reforms that will improve the lives of those who carry a criminal record. Neal, who is passionate about this issue, shared with the group the effort that the Governor’s Office is putting forth to improve the reentry strategy in communities across the state. He mentioned that Georgia has done in four months what it took Michigan to do in two years – a state that is largely regarded as a national leader in recidivism reduction. Georgia has been to do this because of the broad support these reforms have received from the top-down.
Neal shared with the group that nine years ago the state had 64,000 people in prison or in jail. Today, this population has been reduced to 55,000 people – a savings of nearly $190 million to the state (the average cost of incarcerating a person in Georgia is $21,039 per year). Furthermore, of the 9,000 people released over this time period, 1,000 people were released in just the past month. The majority of these releases are low-level, non-violent offenders who are better-off receiving treatment under community supervision than within prison. These reductions allow the state to reserve expensive prison beds for offenders who pose the greatest threat to public safety.
Much of the success that the state has experienced in reducing prison costs and increasing public safety has taken place through recommendations made by the Criminal Justice Reform Council during the past three years. The council’s recommendations have served as a powerful guide for realigning Georgia’s criminal justice system with evidence-based practices nationwide.
As statewide collaboration continues to take place from the Governor’s office to local community service providers, there is good reason to believe that Georgia will continue to see positive outcomes in offender reentry in the coming years.