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Ga. high court chief justice wants fewer in jail

ATLANTA (AP) -- A nearly three-decade veteran of the bench, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein is a big advocate of finding alternatives to locking people up and thinks the state is on the right track with its focus on criminal justice reform.

"We need to be open to new ideas rather than just put them away in prison as long as you can," she said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. "If you put someone in the prison system, you effectively have harmed their ability to get work, and you probably have harmed them socially, as far as coming out and being a productive citizen."

She mentioned an example from her time as a DeKalb County Superior Court judge. She had to hand down a mandatory minimum sentence of five years to a 17-year-old who had used a plastic pistol to steal a Starter jacket.

"I had no leeway," she said. "Now, when that young man comes out, he may have a high school education. He won't have any college. He will have no career. And it's going to be very difficult for him to be successful in life."

Hunstein was part of a panel that presented recommendations to the state Legislature, which resulted in the adoption this year of legislation to overhaul the state's criminal justice system to provide alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders. The reforms were widely praised and unanimously approved by lawmakers in both chambers. Among the panel's recommendations were treatment programs for drug offenders and increased supervision of released inmates.

A next step in the process is a focus on juvenile offenders, something Hunstein feels strongly about.

Teenagers don't necessarily demonstrate the best judgment, but locking them up isn't always the answer and often makes it more likely they'll commit future crimes, she said.

"I think we have to address problems with our juveniles to prevent them from becoming adult criminals," she said.

Locking people up for less time can also save the state enormous sums of money, an advantage that's not lost on Hunstein. Since she took over as chief justice three years ago, she's had to deal with substantial budget concerns. During her first year as chief justice, she had to fire some employees and furlough others. She and the other justices volunteered to take unpaid furlough days to keep costs down.

"It's not quite as bad now as it was, but there were times when we were looking for contributions of pens and pencils and that sort of thing, just to save as much money as possible," she said.

Hunstein was appointed to the state high court in 1992. She became chief justice in 2009 and has about a year left in her term, after which she'll continue to serve on the court as a regular justice. She's thinking ahead and has more ideas for reforming the criminal justice system in Georgia.

"I'm very interested in traffic misdemeanors," she said. "Most citizens in this state don't realize that when they plead guilty to most traffic offenses, they are pleading guilty to a misdemeanor."

That plea can mean a fine and sometimes jail time and makes it so the offender technically has a criminal record, she said. Many states have changed this so that some traffic violations -- like speeding or running a red light -- are lesser offenses. Hunstein would like to see Georgia make a similar change or at least look into providing a way for most drivers to get that conviction off their record.

She would also like the state to consider a pretrial release program that would allow people accused of certain crimes to be released from jail without paying bond prior to trial. This would ease the burden on the local jail system and would allow people to get on with their lives until their cases are heard.

"When you are put in the jail system and you have to wait to have your case disposed of by the county or the city, you're talking weeks, sometimes months, which means that you may lose your job, you may lose your apartment, you may lose your home, you may lose your family because you're waiting there for an adjudication," she said.

Comments

GeorgiaResident 1 year, 11 months ago

"I had no leeway," she said. "Now, when that young man comes out, he may have a high school education. He won't have any college. He will have no career. And it's going to be very difficult for him to be successful in life."Strong

I'm sorry but if he is using a pistol, real or a replica, to rob people for a jacket at 17 years old, then I don't think him going to prison is going to make his chance of becoming an astronaut or brain surgeon any smaller. At 17 years old, he is old enough to decide if he wants to pursue a college education and succesful career. If he chooses to rob someone for a piece of clothing, then he has decided his own fate.

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gwinnettresident1 1 year, 11 months ago

I agree..I have a son who has a felony and served time in prison. When he got out there are few or no jobs for a (felon) plus he has high fines imposed on him from the courts. How do you pay them if you cant find employment? He has applied many times and unless you work for someone on the side (if you can find work on the side) then you cant pay the fines each month while on probation. For example a small fine of 4 or 5 thousand require a payment to the probation officer of about 140 per month....I think if you are going to do prison time you shouldnt have a fine. It makes it impossible to pay and if you dont pay guess what you go back to prison....The system is all about money....Plus Ga one of very few states will not allow a ex prisoner to get food stamps if the crime was anything to do with drugs. That is even caught with some weed. But if you live in Ga and murder and when you get released you can get help with food stamps medicare and other programs until you have time to get on your feet.

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Karl 1 year, 11 months ago

All valid concerns. I hope they will be addressed as Georgia progresses in its judicial and correctional reforms.

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R 1 year, 11 months ago

I wonder if the victims get ANY restitution along the way

Excuse us for being less than enthusiastic getting felons back on their feet, some of us are trying HARD to KEEP ourselves on our own feet (and against all odds) …

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dman 1 year, 11 months ago

Well, if he didnt get caught, he wouldn't have to worry about NOT being able to work.

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Karl 1 year, 11 months ago

What an asinine response to gwinnettresident1's comment.

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dman 1 year, 11 months ago

Again, if you dont put yourself in a compromising position, have a chance to get arrested, found guilty, become a felon, etc....then you DON'T have to worry about the "post-felon" rules. Right?

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JCJB 1 year, 11 months ago

What many of you don't realize is that there are many people in jail and prison that are not guilty. They are incarcerated because there are dirty cops, dirty prosecutors, dirty probation officers and dirty judges. There are also people that report false information and implicate those that have nothing to do with their plight. The case is stacked against them from the beginning and if they were to go for a jury trial, they would lose, so they are forced to plead out and take what they are handed. Please don't think that drugs are not planted and money is not stolen from those that are now inmates. It happens all the time. Their entire life is ruined. EVERY day there are reports of dirty people in the justice system (oxymoron), and Georgia is the worst state in the nation for it. If you have tens of thousands of dollars to pay for a big name attorney, you may have a chance. There are truly evil people out there, and they work as "public servants".

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