The Institute for Leadership and Social Impact (ILSI) at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business hosted a panel discussion on “Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform - All Georgians Benefit” as part of their Impact series. This fall’s Impact series talks focus on conversations about race, social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Panelists included Senator Tonya Anderson (D-Lithonia); Representative Houston Gaines (R-Athens); Doug Ammar, Executive Director of the Georgia Justice Project; and Lisa McGahan, Policy Director at the Georgia Justice Project.
The panelists discussed their criminal justice reform bill, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and how bipartisanship can make a difference in the lives of Georgians.
Georgia’s Criminal Justice System and Bill SB288
Georgia has one of the highest incarceration rates of any state in the U.S. with 527,000 people serving under correctional control (individuals in jail, prison, probation or parole). That’s three times the national average. In addition, over four million Georgians (40% of all adults in Georgia) have a criminal record, according to Doug Ammar, Executive Director of the Georgia Justice Project (GJP), a non-profit organization that seeks to reduce the number of people under correctional control and assist those serving in jail, prison, probation, or parole through legal representation and activism.
Through a bipartisan effort from Sen. Tonya Anderson, Rep. Houston Gaines, and other legislators in the House and Senate, Senate Bill 288 was passed this summer despite the Covid-19 crisis. The bill, also called the ‘Second Chance Bill,’ will affect over a million citizens in Georgia, restricting and sealing certain misdemeanor and pardoned offenses. Before the bill was passed, a criminal record stayed with an individual for the entirety of their life, regardless of the offense, except for certain convictions occurring before an individual turned 21. Law enforcement will continue to have access to all records.
“For the first time, if someone takes advantage of the new law, they will be permitted to say ‘no’ when asked about arrests or convictions on a job application. The new law, when used to the fullest extent, will cut off information from the background check companies,” said Ammar.
While several similar bills were floating around the Capitol, this bill made it through in large part due to the exceptional amount of bipartisan work that went on between Anderson, Gaines, and other legislators. Anderson initially solicited support from her Democratic colleagues but realized she needed to reach across the aisle and gain consensus from Republicans as well if the bill was going to pass. While she was working in the Senate, Gaines was working on the bill in the House.
“After conversations last year, I was excited that we’d crafted a piece of legislation that everyone got behind, and in the end, one thing that I’m most proud of in this legislation is that it was bipartisan and it was unanimously passed in both chambers,” said Gaines. “I wish more folks would focus on issues like this where we can come together because if we did…we’d get a lot more done.”
Facing Racism in the Criminal Justice System
“The criminal justice system is a deep but dark reflection of the signification of disparity in this country as it relates to race,” said Ammar. Currently, in Georgia, 36 percent of the population is Black, but they make up 56 percent of the prison population. Bill SB288 puts a crack in the system by reducing the stigma and barriers previously carried by justice involved individuals.
Anderson thinks this year’s bill was passed in part because of the racial movement of 2020. “The bill was introduced and passed the Senate in March and we were out for recess because of the outbreak. We came back in June and a lot had happened between March and June that shifted the mindset of Americans concerning racial equality and the criminal justice system,” she said. Both she and Gaines agreed that to move forward as a state and a nation, citizens need to address racism, not just in the criminal justice system, but in our society.
As Gaines put it, “we have to have conversations not only about the criminal justice system but racism in our society. That’s how we’re going to make a change. These are challenging conversations sometimes, but we have to have them.”
Anderson concurred. “It’s not just about racism. It’s systemic racism. It’s not just in the criminal justice system, it’s about education, economics. We must go deep. We can have a conversation a little at a time, but we have to go deep eventually so we can get to the root of the problem.”
Participating in Reform
The panel recognizes that there is more to do and encouraged students to get involved. Gaines, previously president of the student body at the University of Georgia, suggested starting the conversation among friends and in student groups across campus. Both he and Anderson emphasized their availability as well. “Research criminal justice reform, come up with an idea, and bring it to me or Senator Anderson, or another legislator,” said Gaines.
Attending local council meetings, emailing representatives in the General Assembly, or participating in an internship at the Capitol are all actions students can take to become more involved in criminal justice reform, Anderson explained.
Both members of the General Assembly agree that there’s still more to do to change the criminal justice system in Georgia. And both agree it will take both parties.
“I want to continue to work across the aisle. We may disagree. We may not agree on how to approach it or on certain issues, but we’ll get a lot more done by sitting down at the table as we did with this legislation,” said Gaines.
The panel discussion is available in its entirety in the video below.