Justice reform offers hope to some serving life sentences

Georgia lawmakers have taken the first steps toward reforming the state's harshest drug sentencing laws.

Justice reform has become a hot topic in Georgia in recent years, with state lawmakers beginning to undo some of the most egregious drug sentencing laws that were passed during the drug epidemic of the 1980s. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, a central component of the state's justice reforms, House Bill 328, is already offering hope to some nonviolent drug offenders who had been serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. According to its supporters, HB328 is just the first step in ensuring drug laws across both the state and the country focus less on punishment and more on rehabilitation.

Life without parole

Because of concerns about crack cocaine during the 1980s, state lawmakers at the time passed sentencing laws that took a "tough on crime" approach to the drug problem. The recidivist law that was passed at the time meant people convicted of their fourth felony offense had to serve their full sentence without being eligible for parole. For some low-level drug offenders, those tough sentencing laws in effect meant that they were serving life sentences without ever having the hope of being released.

House Bill 328

Since the 1980s, the panic concerning crack cocaine has subsided and there has been broad recognition that drug offenses are often better dealt with through rehabilitation and drug courts. Furthermore, those tough sentencing laws have now come to be viewed as both morally wrong and financially unsustainable given the high costs of locking up offenders for life. With broad bipartisan support, state lawmakers passed HB328, which allows some people sentenced to life without parole under Georgia's recidivist laws to apply for early release.

The law is admittedly limited in scope: to be eligible, offenders must have already served 12 years of their sentence, they must have no violent felony or sex crime convictions, they cannot be considered a high risk of reoffending, they have to have a good prison record, and be in possession of a high school diploma or its equivalent. A perceived shortcoming of the law is that while it covers those convicted of selling, manufacturing, or possessing drugs with the intent to distribute, it does not cover the lesser offense of simple possession. However, justice reform advocates say they will be looking to address the problem of people serving disproportionately long sentences for possession through future legislation.

Growing support

As the Augusta Chronicle points out, Georgia's efforts have also attracted the attention of federal lawmakers, who were recently in Atlanta to study ways of improving the federal justice system. Indeed, reform of drug sentencing laws has proven to be one of the rare issues to gain bipartisan support in recent years, both in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress.

Drug offenses

While the reforms that Georgian lawmakers have taken so far offer hope to some offenders, it is important to realize that these reforms are still very limited. For people who are currently facing a drug charge, these charges need to be taken seriously. A criminal defense attorney should be contacted immediately in order to understand what legal options are available and how to best respond to such charges.