State lawmakers are working this year on legislation to change Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, ban no-knock arrest warrants and lower employment barriers for residents on probation.
But five weeks into the 2021 legislative session, reforming the citizen’s arrest statute appears the most likely criminal justice reform to gain passage.
Democrats who are pushing broad changes to policing techniques and Georgia’s criminal-justice system have filed dozens of bills in both legislative chambers.
Their bills range from straight-forward changes such as more training for officers in de-escalation techniques and a ban on using choke holds during arrests, to more complicated overhauls including a citizen-led review board for officer-involved shootings and outlawing private prisons.
Democrats are aiming to build on momentum after state lawmakers passed a bill last summer to boost penalties for hate crimes in Georgia. That bill was nearly tripped up as Republicans sought specific protections for police officers against hate crimes that ended up passing in separate legislation.
With chances slim the bulk of this year’s bills can move in the Republican-controlled state legislature, House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, said Democrats’ package at least keeps the focus on criminal-justice issues after last summer’s protests over police violence and racial injustice.
“We need to look at criminal justice as a whole and not just one or two things,” Beverly said. “It seems to me that there’s an appetite in Georgia to ask, ‘Are we really doing the right thing?’”
Revisions to the state’s citizen’s arrest law look most likely to gain passage in the General Assembly, Beverly said. The measure stems from the shooting death last year of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man killed near Brunswick in a confrontation with two white men who tried to detain him while he was jogging.
Proposals for changing the citizen’s arrest law have drawn “potential bipartisan support” so far, Beverly said. Whether Democrats back a bill soon to be sponsored by state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, will depend on what degree Georgia citizens could still detain criminal suspects in certain situations.
Reeves, who is one of Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders in the House, declined to comment on his upcoming bill but said details would be announced Feb. 16.
Democrats are also pushing Kemp and Republican lawmakers to join them in backing legislation to ban no-knock warrants, a controversial police tactic that was involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman from Louisville, Ky., who was killed in an apartment raid last year.
Passing a ban on no-knock warrants would mark a win for criminal-justice reform advocates, Beverly said. It would also help bolster relations between both parties in the General Assembly as tensions rise over Republican efforts to overhaul Georgia’s absentee voting system that Democrats oppose.
“If you want to do something where you can really get buy-in from my caucus, it would be the no-knock warrant [ban],” Beverly said. “We have members on both sides who agree that those two issues [no-knock warrants and citizen’s arrests] are bad.”
But scrapping no-knock warrants may be a step too far for public safety-minded Republicans concerned about changing laws based on passionate reaction to high-profile deaths like those of Arbery, Taylor and George Floyd in Minnesota last year.
State Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, a retired major with the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, said he was not involved in any no-knock warrants while serving four years on a multi-agency drug task force. Lawmakers should instead continue evaluating the tactic in the recently created Senate Study Committee on Law Enforcement Reform, he said.
“Jumping to conclusions is the worst thing that anybody can do when they feel a crime is committed,” Robertson said Friday. “We are either choosing to ignore logic … or we’re just doing things to say we’re doing them.”
Rather than outlawing certain individual actions, state lawmakers should place more focus on measures to improve de-escalation and other training standards for Georgia police officers that would include routine mental and physical health evaluations, Robertson said.
He noted officers currently receive just 20 hours of touch-up training each year after graduating from the police academy, falling short of the safeguards local agencies need to keep close tabs on officers before crisis situations like improper use-of-force ever happen.
“De-escalation is not a class: It is a thread that runs through every aspect of training,” Robertson said. “Every agency should have a fit-for-duty policy that covers mental and physical fitness.”
Robertson is among several Republican lawmakers to introduce criminal justice-focused legislation this year, though none is as expansive as Democrats’ legislative package. His measure would bar licensing boards from denying business licenses to Georgians on parole or probation for most felony convictions.
Robertson’s bill and another by state Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, aimed at tightening rules to end or shorten probation terms mark legislation that could help cut down Georgia’s status as the state with the highest rate of residents on probation, said Lisa McGahan, policy director for the nonprofit Georgia Justice Project.
“We have too many people serving under community supervision,” McGahan said. “You can’t access economic opportunity with that handicap.”
Other Republican-sponsored bills McGahan singled out include a measure by state Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, to raise the age for youth offenders to be tried in adult court from 17 to 18, as well as two bills protecting human-trafficking victims that passed the state Senate on Thursday.