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April 19, 2024 7:25 pm

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Georgia lawmakers advance bills aimed to give convicts of minor crimes easier path to work, housing

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by Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder
March 19, 2024

Two Georgia legislative panels on Monday approved bills that criminal justice reform advocates contend will help thousands of people with minor criminal convictions improve their chances to find good jobs and housing.

The House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 157, intended to give Georgians convicted of minor offenses more access to professional licenses needed to work in one of every six jobs in Georgia. A few hours later on Monday night, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 909, which would allow many more Georgians to keep their records sealed prior to their criminal sentence being completed under Georgia’s First Offender Act.

Both bills enjoy bipartisan support. The proposals are endorsed by the Georgia Justice Project as a step toward modernizing Georgia’s longstanding First Offender Act. Under the First Offender Act, some nonviolent felony convictions can be removed from the public record if the person has served their sentence. Both measures can still win legislative approval before the 2024 session is scheduled to end on March 28.

The professional licensing bill is designed to clarify the kinds of criminal charges a state board or agency can consider when deciding whether to grant someone a professional license if a criminal case is pending, if someone has pleaded guilty to a crime under the First Offender Act, or if there is another type of convictions.

An occupational board grants licenses to hundreds of thousands of Georgians who meet standards based on education and prior experience, passing certification exams and background checks. Professions licensed by the Georgia secretary of state range from nursing to hair stylist.

Many people are unaware that they have a chance to successfully win an appeal of licensing board denial or don’t have the resources to go through that process, advocates say.

Georgia Justice Project’s policy director, Wade Askew, said the bill is written in such a way that someone convicted of possessing a controlled substance would not necessarily be relevant to a number of professions that require licenses, but it could greatly affect a medical board overseeing nursing and pharmacy.

“There are requirements that we’re making sure apply to everyone that say an offense has to be directly related to the relevant profession in order for it to be considered,” Askew said.

”If that record has been restricted and sealed and you run a private background check on your standard business then, no it’s not popping up for you,” he said. “If you are a sensitive employer, think medical, elder care, childcare and it’s a related offense, then you would see it.” 

The bill also says that a board can consider whether the applicant has committed an offense that could likely be a threat to public safety.

David Morgan, a government affairs associate at Reason Foundation, said the licensing bill would create more consistent guidelines for state officials who determine whether Georgians are permitted to work in specialty jobs.

“Of course the legislation preserves boards’ ability to deny licenses in cases where applicants have criminal records directly related to occupation, and there is no evidence of rehabilitation,” Morgan said about the bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican. “These are common sense reforms that will get Georgians a second chance.”

Mack Parnell, executive director with the conservative Georgia Faith and Freedom Coalition, cited a letter signed by his organization and others like Georgia Chamber and Metro Atlanta Chamber, supporting a measure that could benefit many Georgians.

“This is about building stronger families in Georgia and ensuring individuals have the opportunity to provide for their families,” Parnell said. 

Buzz Brockway, a lobbyist for Georgia Center for Opportunity, said the licensing bill is an example of how criminal justice reform could have a long-term benefit for Georgia residents. He praised former Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reforms that helped convicted under the First Offender Act finish substance abuse treatment and mental health courts programs.

“I think this bill continues the good work that the Georgia Legislature has done really over the last decade in assisting people who have run afoul of the law at some point in their life to return back to society and get employment,” Brockway said.

The revised version of the proposal to seal some conviction records seeks to resolve concerns about the original version’s restrictions of judicial discretion and limiting access to records for those connected to the legal system.

“This bill enables those people who have made a mistake of a certain nature the ability to recover from that and move on with their lives,” Lyons Republican Rep. Leesa Hagan said at a committee hearing last week.

This story is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.