Legislation could give municipal courts flexibility in sentencing

Published 9:52 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bainbridge Municipal Court Judge Joshua Bell presented a status report on the court to the Bainbridge City Council, saying that the court has been busy after a Georgia Supreme Court decision at the end of 2014 on a case regarding probation services.
“How it affected us and all counties and cities in Georgia in regards to probation services was that it eliminated tolling of probation warrants,” Bell said.
The practice of “tolling” is the process private probation companies used to extend sentences if probationers did not comply with the terms of their probation or did not pay the applicable fees and fines.
“I can understand the reasons why there’s been an attack on that when you have the fines that have escalated to a certain point to where our lower income folks can’t pay those, and that’s not necessarily the court’s fault or the city’s fault,” Bell said. “It’s a statewide issue in regards to surcharges and things like that that are added on to the fine that sometimes make it relatively impossible for some of our lower income folks to pay.”
Bell explained that several offenses have state-mandated minimum sentences or fines, such as a misdemeanor charge of driving without a license, which has a minimum fine of $500 plus surcharges.
Current proposed legislation, Georgia House Bill 310, would give municipal judges more flexibility with sentencing, Bell said.
“Instead of judges being handcuffed to that $500 fine for driving without a license, they can convert that to community service,” Bell said.
Bainbridge Mayor Edward Reynolds said that he could see the benefit in having traffic and misdemeanor offenders doing community service versus the city trying to “get money where there isn’t money.”
Bell said that several of the issues he’s seen in Bainbridge and other cities have been because offenders are afraid of going to jail simply because they can’t pay the fines on misdemeanor charges.
“What happens is that offenders don’t have the ability to pay, they get scared they’re going to jail, and they fail to report because they think that if they report, there’s going to be an officer waiting on them,” Bell said.
“I think that is sort of what the state has seen on a general level is that most of these folks are just scared of going to jail because they don’t have any money, so they don’t report to their probation officer, and now there’s a mechanism to kind of alleviate some of that to where we can work with defendants and probationers with a lot more authority to convert some of these things to community service, Bell said.”
Bell said that he thinks the conversations about probation will result in more transparency from private probation companies and what they do with the money they collect.
Bell also said that he thinks the state is trying to transition the function of municipal and traffic courts away from a solely revenue-generating purpose.
“It struck a new sort of era in the state. We need to get beyond looking at municipal court and misdemeanor traffic courts as revenue-generating courts,” Bell said. “I think that’s a term that needs to be eradicated from people’s mind and people’s vocabulary.”

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