ATLANTA – Criminal justice advocates are pushing for Georgia to pass legislation this year aimed at restricting public access to certain criminal convictions when seeking jobs or housing.
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.
Several bills before the General Assembly would let a large portion of those people shield their criminal records from public viewing if they are not currently allowed under state law to do so. Law enforcement agencies would still have access to the records.
Supporters say passing second-chance legislation would turn around the lives of people who have been denied good jobs and housing due to a criminal background.
Those people would include Marietta defense attorney Kim Frye’s father, who she said still cannot purchase a gun after he was arrested 40 years ago for buying a weapon at a pawn shop. Frye said her father’s case has sat on the court “dead docket” for decades, languishing without a final judicial ruling while continuing to pop up in background searches.
“This is truly your permanent record,” Frye said about minor offenses like her father’s.
State law currently requires people with certain downgraded charges, vacated convictions and dead-docket cases to petition a court for restricting records. Only certain misdemeanor convictions can be shielded such as for alcohol-related charges, first-time drug possession and crimes committed before age 21.
So far, none of the roughly half-dozen bills on records restriction still alive this legislative session has moved past the committee stage for a full House or Senate vote.
The most recently filed measure, Senate Bill 288, would automatically restrict public access to most kinds of criminal convictions and arrest histories, except for several major offenses like sex crimes, drunk driving and child molestation.
The bill would shield records of felony charges if 10 years have passed since the sentence was completed. That would also apply for overturned convictions and any charges that never led to a conviction.
Its sponsor, Sen. Tonya Anderson, said expanding records-restriction rights could dramatically turn around the lives of millions of Georgians whose minor offenses have kept them at a perpetual economic and social disadvantage.
“This bill would bring about a great economic change to Georgia,” said Anderson, D-Lithonia, at a hearing of her bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Communities will be safer,” she continued, “and the economy will improve so that those who have been rehabilitated can have a second chance to take care of their families and be reunited in society after having served their sentences.”
Other bills, filed by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in both chambers, propose different thresholds for having records restricted. They include ranges of wait times after sentences have been completed, from zero to five or more years for felonies.
Concerns remain over specifics about the time needed to elapse before records could be hidden, said Houston County Solicitor General Amy Smith, president of the Georgia Association of Solicitors General.
She said some crimes like family violence and stalking should not be shielded, but that her organization overall supports the concept of broadening records restrictions in Georgia.
“We are not opposed and never have been to records restrictions in certain circumstances and under certain conditions,” Smith said. “[But] we have concerns about particulars in all of the bills that we’ve seen.”
Transparency issues could also crop up if second-chance legislation results in hiding instance of repeated crimes that indicate patterns of behavior like drug abuse, said Richard Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Relaxing restriction rules too much might also increase chances for abuses of power by persons or organizations able to sweep misbehavior under the rug, he said.
“I am very sensitive to concerns about people wanting to rebuild their lives,” Griffiths said. “We can’t do that without building in protections for the public to understand what’s happening in the courts and what’s happening in society.”
State lawmakers passed second-chance legislation in 2012 that expanded restriction rights for people whose charges did not result in convictions. But Georgia has fallen behind in recent years compared to other states, said Brenda Smeeton, legal director for the nonprofit Georgia Justice Project.
She cited a recent study from the nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center that found Georgia is one of three states that have not passed any second-chance legislation in recent years.
“The reality is that the vast majority of the people that come to our office … can’t be helped under the current law because it is so limited,” Smeeton said.
Limited job and housing opportunities also hurt programs that help people transition back into society once they are released from prison, said Brendan Spaar, a board member of the Greater Gwinnett Reentry Alliance.
Shielding records of people who have paid their dues would help erase the biases of employers and landlords inclined to deny life-changing opportunities over a long-gone criminal offense.
“If they can’t see it and it’s not really relevant to the job, then does it really matter?” Spaar said.
Anderson said she does not know if her second-chance bill will be scheduled for a vote in the judiciary committee.
“I’m hopeful,” she said. “But I’m not confident.”