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POLITICAL NOTEBOOK: Group praises reform, advocates for more

Local advocates recently praised the passage of criminal justice reform legislation in Georgia.

Advocates from the Georgia Campaign for Access, Reform & Education (Georgia CARE), which believes Georgia should regulate marijuana like alcohol and tobacco, applauded a 2013 bill as part of a continued effort to reduce the prison population. But he said it falls short on dealing with the issue.

"We feel the state should establish and decriminalize personal use amounts and remove prison time for simple possession and use," said James Bell, the director of Georgia CARE. "If we all agree we can't lock away marijuana users in prison, why have laws on the books that can incarcerate citizens for up to 10 years?"

With national polls showing more than half of Americans support marijuana legalization, the campaign supports the increase of felony possession amounts from 1 ounce to 2 or 4 ounces, a press release said. Advocates said they will work toward more reform.

"We should treat marijuana like alcohol or tobacco and regulate personal use amounts. The legal drugs have proven to be far more harmful than marijuana yet we continue to treat marijuana like plutonium rather than wine," Bell said. "Money saved not prosecuting marijuana cases can be applied to drug and alcohol treatment programs for those who truly need it."

As far as this year's law is concerned, Gov. Nathan Deal said the second round of criminal justice reform was about implementing "smart on crime policies" to save tax dollars and promote public safety.

"HB 349 is another step in the right direction in making Georgia smarter on crime," Deal said when signing the bill into law last month. "Public safety will be improved by giving prosecutors leverage in certain cases and by ensuring that our prison resources are reserved for the 'kingpins' while the 'mules' are given a chance at reform."

According to a press release, the bill restores judicial discretion by allowing a departure from mandatory minimum sentences in limited circumstances. It also creates the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Commission and contains measures to help break the cycle of recidivism through drug and mental health court and other programs.

Political Notebook appears in the Thursday and Sunday editions of the Gwinnett Daily Post.

Camie Young can be reached via email at camie.young@gwinnettdailypost.com.

For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/politics.