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Maggie Lee Columns

Georgia could close more criminal records, open more opportunities, say supporters

Maggie Lee
L-R: Doug Ammar from the Georgia Justice Project, Marilynn Winn from Women on the Rise, DeKalb DA Sherry Boston and John Helton from Atlanta CareerRise on a Feb. 10 panel discussion. Credit: Maggie Lee L-R: Doug Ammar from the Georgia Justice Project, Marilynn Winn from Women on the Rise, DeKalb DA Sherry Boston and John Helton from Atlanta CareerRise on a Feb. 10 panel discussion. Credit: Maggie Lee
L-R: Doug Ammar from the Georgia Justice Project, Marilynn Winn from Women on the Rise, DeKalb DA Sherry Boston and John Helton from Atlanta CareerRise on a Feb. 10 panel discussion. Credit: Maggie Lee

By Maggie Lee

Criminal records in Georgia stick to people longer than they do in most other states.

But a tight labor market and shifting attitudes in the state Legislature may be about to change that.

“These are hard-working folks. They just want to help support their families,” said state Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton. This week, she plans to offer an amended bill that she said would give people an opportunity to move on after they’ve done their time.

Her legislation will allow more people to restrict access to their conviction or arrest records more quickly. It’ll probably take showing a court something like three years of a clean record to seal a misdemeanor and five years for felonies.

Those were the figures were in the first draft of House Bill 528, which Ballinger filed last year. As of Friday afternoon, she was still working on revisions and planning for a hearing sometime this week.

Some crimes wouldn’t be eligible for restrictions, like sexual abuse of children, for example. And records will still be available to police. Though people use the word “expungement” in casual conversation, the record is not deleted. It’s just sealed away from the general public, including potential employers.

“We’re not blocking the information from law enforcement or criminal investigations or anything like that,” Ballinger said. “This is just really to enable people to get a job.”

Indeed, Marilynn Winn said she went to prison six times because she needed a job.

“Being arrested the first time caused me to not get a job the next time, and I ended up doing six prison sentences,” Winn explained to a group of advocates gathered for a “Second Chance Day” of lobbying and learning at the state Capitol. She’s now executive director of Women on the Rise, a nonprofit fighting mass incarceration in Georgia and supporting formerly incarcerated women.

She said that at a certain point, she decided she wasn’t going back to prison. She said she brought a Social Security record to court proving she’d had 18 jobs.

“I was also terminated from 18 jobs because I lied to get those jobs,” she said. Employers didn’t like it when they realized she had a record.

Yet even as Georgia employers are scrambling for staff, people who have criminal records aren’t sharing in the employment boom.

“Probably the better part of two million people in Georgia would have the chance to show they’ve been  rehabilitated and then not let that record impact every hiring or renting decision that they encounter,” said  Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project. That’s a nonprofit that works to represent and support people in the criminal justice system and reduce barriers to reentry. And they were an organizer of Second Chance Day.

He said that in the past, some pushback against the idea of record restriction has come from prosecutors, and, he thinks, employers speaking through them.

But that’s changing. Witness, say, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce partnering with metro solicitors and the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative last year on a job fair and expungement event.

Ammar said some states go further than Georgia’s proposed bill, like by offering automatic record restriction.

But Ammar said he thinks Ballinger’s bill will have broad buy-in.

Part of the reason for that broad buy-in is also changing attitudes under the Gold Dome toward folks who have criminal records. Over his eight years in office from 2010, Gov. Nathan Deal’s marquee policy was criminal justice reform: channeling only the most dangerous folks to prison, and channeling others to services and treatment.

Sherry Boston, the DeKalb DA, said that historically the philosophy about prosecutors like herself is that their job is to lock people up and throw away the key.

But when she said that, Boston was sitting next to Winn, right there in a church basement, speaking to the activists gathered for Second Chance Day. And Boston was speaking in favor of record restriction.

Boston said her approach as a prosecutor is to ask how to uplift and make her community overall safe. She said she wants the community to be relatively crime-free, but said people also need chances for rehabilitation.

And that’s difficult with a conviction hanging over your head.

“If I don’t become a part of the solution, then that means I’m just standing as a barrier, and as part of the problem,” Boston said.

Ballinger’s bill is expected in a state House Judiciary Non-Civil subcommittee this week.

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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