GJP’s Response to 3/10/16 AJC Article “Bill seals criminals’ files”

Read AJC’s full article “Bill seals criminals’ files.”

GJP’s Response:

Alan Judd’s March 10th article “Bill seals criminals’ files” mischaracterizes SB 367 as an expansion of Georgia’s First Offender Law.  This “second chance law” has been in effect for 48 years and the bill merely modernizes the law so it can live up to its intent – to give certain first time offenders a chance to move on without the burden of a criminal conviction if they successfully complete their sentence without getting in trouble again. 

Not everyone who is eligible to be sentenced as a First Offender gets the opportunity; it is up to the judge, who looks at the facts and considers the input of the prosecutor.  Also, accepting First Offender status is not without risk; if an individual violates the terms of probation, the judge can sentence them to the maximum allowable sentence for that offense.  Also, as the article rightly points out, serious violent offenses, sex offenses, and DUI are not eligible.

The article repeatedly refers to cases handled through First Offender as convictions – they are not.  First Offender is “deferred adjudication;” the individual is only convicted if they do not successfully complete their probation or get in trouble again.  The proposed changes do not seal records of convictions because there is no conviction. Also, it is not true that once a record is sealed in can never be accessed; it can be accessed with a court order, which protects the press.

It has always been the case that the records of a successfully completed First Offender case are removed from the individual’s official Georgia criminal history for employment purposes (not for law enforcement), and the current law says that employers may not use these charges to deny employment.  But the First Offender law predates private background check companies which make an end run around the official record and obtain records at the courthouse or online and often incorrectly report these charges as convictions.  The current law even predates the internet; its drafters didn’t envision that records would show up online.  This bill brings the law into the 21st century. 

Georgia Justice Project assists people who can’t afford an attorney with criminal records issues.  Many people come to our office dismayed because their case was handled under First Offender – they were told they would get a second chance if they did everything the judge told them to do and they didn’t get in any more trouble – yet still they can’t get a job and move on with their life because a private company is reporting the charge.  Governor Deal and the Criminal Justice Reform Council are well aware that the best predictor of recidivism is an individual’s ability to get a job.  SB 367 will help thousands of individuals who are working hard to move on and become productive citizens.