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Reforming Georgia's criminal justice system

Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - 11:14am

Georgia legislators passed reforms to Georgia’s criminal justice system in 2017, but the complex web of fines, fees, and surcharges embedded in Georgia’s legal code continues to create significant hardship for the state’s poorest citizens.

A team of researchers from nine universities including UGA conducted a comprehensive review of monetary sanctions - fines, court fees, restitution, surcharges, and corrections costs - in the criminal justice systems in a diverse array of states including California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Washington. Sarah Shannon of the department of sociology led the effort to assess Georgia’s system of monetary sanctions:

“Georgia stands out starkly against the other states in our study for its use of probation as a system to collect criminal justice debt. No other state in our analysis uses ‘pay only probation’ to track and collect monetary sanctions,” said Shannon. “The result is a broad swath of citizens caught up in the scrutiny of criminal justice supervision who pose little risk to public safety but who pay for their poverty.”

Monetary sanctions can be imposed for offenses ranging from traffic violations and misdemeanors to felony convictions. Though these types of financial punishments have a long history, state and local governments, including Georgia, have been imposing monetary sanctions with increasing frequency over the past 30 years. The result is a national patchwork of financial punishments. In Georgia, probation supervision plays a prominent role in how these sanctions are imposed and collected.

 “Our legal review confirms that reforms in recent years have brought some important checks on Georgia’s probation system, especially oversight of private probation companies,” said Shannon. “New rules regarding assessment of ability to pay are especially crucial in ensuring that undue burdens are not placed on citizens who are poor. But judges and other court actors need to implement these guidelines in their courtrooms for it to make a difference.”

The full report from the researchers can be found here. Terrific work from these scholars to address urgent issues that go far beyond the criminal justice system and create havoc in the lives of many of our most vulnerable citizens. It is incumbent on all Americans to educate themselves about these issues to understand the broader challenges systematic injustice creates - and what must be done to change it.

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