Chief Justice presents judiciary address

Published 6:49 am Monday, February 28, 2011

While committees continued to pour over legislation, there was a unique buzz of excitement underneath the Gold Dome as the House heard from some of our state’s great leaders and legends.

The House of Representatives welcomed Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein to the House as she presented the annual State of the Judiciary address.

As Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Hunstein leads the highest state court in Georgia, our seven-member state Supreme Court, and also presides over our state’s entire judicial branch. Just as our governor, serving as chief of our state’s executive branch, visits the House and presents the State of the State address to the General Assembly each year, so too does the chief justice in presenting the State of the Judiciary address.

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The two biggest issues addressed by Chief Justice Hunstein in her State of the Judiciary address this week were sentence reform and specialty courts.

Noting that Georgia’s judiciary has worked to streamline its operations to create an efficient and cost-effective justice system, Chief Justice Hunstein began her speech by calling for sentence reform in Georgia.

Currently, Georgia has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, costing the state more than $1 billion annually.

The ongoing economic recession and resulting budget constraints have made it clear that we literally cannot afford to continue this high incarceration system. Many states, including Texas and South Carolina, have already discovered they can keep the public safer and spend less money by supervising some non-violent offenders outside of prison and treating the root causes of their crimes.

Here in Georgia, we are now looking at alternatives to incarceration for certain offenders with two goals in mind: 1) improving public safety, and 2) saving taxpayer dollars. The ultimate goal is to make criminals into law-abiding taxpayers, not tax burdens.

In some ways Georgia has already begun this process by implementing specialty courts throughout the state, which have seen amazing success.

Georgia’s drug courts, DUI courts, and mental health courts have become models for the nation. Please do not think these are feel-good, soft-on-crime alternatives to prison. Rather, specialty courts keep the public safer by breaking the cycle of crime through a combination of treatment and strict accountability measures for non-violent offenders.

In fact, a recent report by the Georgia Department of Audits found that our state’s drug courts, which handle nonviolent substance abusing offenders, have resulted in lower sentencing costs and lower rates of repeat offenders. The report also found that drug courts cost up to 80 percent less than the average daily cost of other traditional sentencing options. By expanding these specialty courts, the state could save $8 million a year.

To further study criminal justice reform, Gov. Nathan Deal, Speaker David Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Chief Justice Hunstein held a news conference last Wednesday to announce legislation that would create the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. This council will meet during the interim to study this issue, much in the same way the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians reviewed our state tax code. After the council completes its work, it will submit a report to the General Assembly before the beginning of the next legislative session. That report will then be turned into legislation.

In addition to hearing the State of the Judiciary address and the introduction of legislation to review criminal justice reform, the House also passed several pieces of legislation aimed at increasing the safety of Georgians.

One of these was House Bill 40. This legislation would require a bitter-tasting agent be added to antifreeze in order to prevent the poisoning of animals and young children. This is necessary because antifreeze contains a substance that has a pleasant aroma and sweet flavor, tempting animals and children to drink the highly poisonous liquid. The problem has become so prevalent that the Humane Society of the United States estimates that more than 10,000 animals are poisoned each year after ingesting antifreeze. This has led six other states to pass legislation similar to HB 40. In fact, Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) decided to sponsor the bill and name it “Chief’s Law” after hearing from a Jefferson woman whose dog named Chief passed away after eating food tainted with antifreeze.

Another bill, HB 52, provides greater access and protections for service dogs. Specifically, this legislation grants access for service and guide dogs to public and private schools, colleges and universities. Further, it prohibits the requirement of any additional payment by a disabled person for a service dog’s access to areas open to the public.

HB 101, the “Better Bicycling Bill,” would improve bicyclist safety by modernizing Georgia’s outdated bicycle codes. Under this legislation, bicyclists would have to stay to the far right portion of roads whenever possible, pedal in the same direction as traffic, and put a red rear light on the backs of their bikes when riding at night.

Additionally, HB 101 creates minimum state standards for the construction of bicycle lanes and requires cars to yield to bicyclists riding in designated bicycle lanes. Each of these measures is designed to promote the safety of Georgia drivers and bicyclists.

Now that House Bills 40, 52 and 101 have passed the House, they will make their way through the Senate committee process. If passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, these bills will become law.

Finally, we also welcomed homegrown music legends Widespread Panic to the House chamber this week. Rep. Keith Heard (D-Athens) sponsored House Resolution 246 recognizing their 25th anniversary. While you may know the band for its musical success, they are also known for their long history of charitable giving. These members of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame have not only sold millions of albums, but have also generously contributed time, effort and art to charities benefiting local food banks, international humanitarian campaigns, and post-Katrina recovery efforts.

Over the next few weeks the House will begin to vote on more legislation addressing some of our state’s most pressing issues. As your state representative, I need to know how you feel about those issues so that I can make informed decisions. Please feel free to call me at my capitol office at (404) 656-0152. Thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.

Rep. Gene Maddox,

Currently, Georgia has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, costing the state more than $1 billion annually.