Since taking office in 2011, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has made criminal justice reform a major focus of his administration. Legislators in the state’s General Assembly have followed suit, introducing proposals and initiatives designed to make it easier for criminal offenders to reintegrate into society after serving their sentences. Currently, lawmakers in the state are working on initiatives that would allow drug offenders to keep their driver’s licenses and receive food stamps—both privileges that are often taken away. Within the next few years, Deal and Georgia legislators also want to make a few other changes—including a re-visitation of the state’s First Offender Act.
Currently, Georgia’s First Offender Act allows offenders with no previous criminal records to keep their slates clean of convictions. Essentially, if a person is charged with a crime, pleads guilty, and serves their sentence, they can come out on the other side without a conviction. Not all offenders are eligible for this option, of course. Most of Deal’s legislative efforts in the criminal justice reform area are meant to help non-violent offenders while reserving prison spots for violent criminals or sexual predators.
On paper, the First Offender Act essentially sounds like an automatic record sealing or expungement program for less severe criminal offenders. Every state offers opportunities for criminal offenders to expunge their records, based on completion of sentencing requirements and general good behavior. However, most states do not have a law like the First Offender Act, which allows first-time convicted criminals to plead guilty and get a clean record automatically, as long as they complete their sentences.
However, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the First Offender Act is a flawed system in that it doesn’t fully seal or expunge a person’s criminal record. On the contrary, those charges or convictions can still sometimes come up on background checks, thereby making it more difficult for ex-offenders to get jobs, apply for housing, and more. The issue is evidently “a bureaucratic thing” that can be blamed on unfinished or unfiled paperwork.
The Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which was assembled by Governor Deal, wants to refine the First Offender Act to make sure that people who take advantage of the law’s provisions are having their records sealed. The records would still be there, and could be opened up again if an offender violated parole or committed a new crime. However, the main aim seems to be that those records would no longer show up on background checks run by private screening firms.