Op-Ed: Georgia Bill Ensures the Integrity of our Criminal Justice System

By State Representative Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, and Judge Linda Cowen, president of the Council of State Court Judges

People convicted of domestic violence, vehicular homicide, multiple DUI offenses or drug offense could all face zero consequences for their actions if HB 837 does not become law. HB 837 was drafted by State Court Judges, Municipal Court Judges, Solicitors, local governments, and probation officials as a response to a questionable local court ruling that could render misdemeanor probation unenforceable in Georgia. If judges no longer have the ability to enforce misdemeanor probation, our court system, prisons and justice system will be in absolute crisis, and our communities will be unsafe.

The underlying bill simply reinforces that judges maintain their authority to ensure that misdemeanor probationers meet the terms of their probation. If HB 837 does not become law, misdemeanor probation may no longer be enforceable, and we will have a disaster in our justice system.

Misdemeanor probation is essential to our court system. It is an efficient way to deal with criminals, and it is paid for by convicted probationers, not by hard working taxpayers. If probation is not an option, then taxpayers will need to build more jails. Also, we will no longer have a reliable mechanism to collect fines, some of which are mandatory.

Unfortunately, some groups have used this critical bill as an opportunity to attack the agencies that enforce these sentences. By law, misdemeanor probation is supervised either by a county or city probation department or through a contract with a private probation company. Make no mistake, this bill grants no new powers to private probation companies and still maintains all authority with the judges. The probation officer cannot do more than carry out the judge’s sentence as it relates to supervision and collection of any fine imposed by the judge. Only judges have the authority to set fines and fees, toll sentences, order substance abuse treatment, determine if electronic monitoring is necessary and issue warrants for those who ignore their probation obligations.

Sadly, those paid to fight this bill are falsely contending that it seeks to hide information from the public. After reading the bill, perhaps the critics who claim that it tries to conceal information will learn that the bill in no way restricts access to any information currently available to the public. Ironically, they will also learn, that additional transparency provisions were added to HB 837.

It is unfortunate that a measure so critical to the integrity of Georgia’s justice system has been ridiculed for reasons irrelevant to what the bill actually accomplishes. An enforceable criminal justice system is important and vital to our public safety. If this bill does not become law, Georgia risks placing its court system into utter chaos and will ensure taxpayers have to open their wallets to pay a fortune for crimes committed against society. If this bill does not become law, Georgia will be a much less safe place to live.

Representative Mark Hamilton represents the citizens of District 24, which includes portions of Forsyth County. He was elected into the House of Representatives in 2006 and currently serves as Chairman of the Industry and Labor Committee. He also serves on the Appropriations, Energy, Utilities, & Telecommunications, Governmental Affairs, Rules, and Transportation committees.

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