ATLANTA, June 30, 2020 – It’s not often that legislative efforts receive unanimous support and that advocacy groups from across the political spectrum agree on a policy goal. But last week SB 288, an effort lead by Georgia Justice Project (GJP) and the Second Chance for Georgia Campaign, passed both the Georgia House and Senate unanimously and is now on its way to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law. SB 288 expands access to criminal record restriction and sealing in Georgia – a process most states call “expungement.”
This new law will give a second chance to thousands of Georgians who want to work but are held back by their criminal history. Georgia has the highest rate of correctional control – prison, jail, probation or parole – in the country. 4.3 million people have a Georgia criminal history – 40% of adults. Under current Georgia law almost all convictions stay on a person’s record forever, creating lifetime barriers to employment, housing and other opportunities. This law will align Georgia with 41 other states that allow a person to remove some convictions from their criminal record after a period of conviction-free years. Sen. Tonya Anderson (D-Lithonia) and Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) both understood the need for change and worked together to get SB 288 passed (pictured).
According to GJP Executive Director Douglas B. Ammar, “GJP has been committed to second chances for Georgians for over 30 years, including 15 years of advocating for expanding our state’s expungement law. We’ve brought together legislators, partner organizations, employers and directly affected people across the state to make this effort a reality. We’d like to personally thank all of our partners and sponsors for supporting this critically important bill and we applaud state leaders for their vision and belief in second chances. This is a big day for Georgia and a huge win for all Georgians!”
SB 288 will allow rehabilitated individuals to petition the court to have certain misdemeanor convictions restricted and sealed four years after the completion of their sentence, provided they have no new convictions and no pending charges. Certain offenses would be excluded from restriction and sealing, including sex crimes, crimes against children, family violence and DUI. The bill also allows individuals who have received a Pardon from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to petition the court to restrict and seal felony convictions as long as they were not serious violent felonies or sex offenses. The bill also provides significant liability protection for employers who engage in second chance hiring. Records remain available to law enforcement and prosecutors, and certain restricted charges remain available for employers who serve vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, and people suffering from mental illness.
GJP has served Georgians who have come in contact with the criminal justice system for over 30 years. GJP provides holistic criminal representation paired with social services support, assists individuals across Georgia each year with their criminal history and has traveled around the state to provide record restriction events and education on expungement issues in Georgia. GJP was heavily involved in drafting the last major rewrite of Georgia’s expungement law, which became effective in 2013 and allowed non-convictions to be removed from someone’s record. GJP has long seen the problems faced by people with past criminal convictions and witnessed what the research shows, that people of color who have a criminal history are more likely to be denied employment or another opportunity based on their record.
GJP has been working for several years to get an expanded law passed and in 2019 kicked off the Second Chance for Georgia Campaign. 74 organizations and congregations joined the effort, ranging from advocacy groups like Women on the Rise and the Southern Center for Human Rights, to more conservatively focused organizations such as Georgia Center for Opportunity and Americans for Prosperity. Faith-based groups, service providers and workforce development organizations all agreed this was the right thing to do, to allow people to move on from their past and participate in the economy.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber was an early supporter of this initiative because the Chamber recognized employers were struggling to fill open positions and criminal records were barriers to individuals participating in the workforce. Amy Lancaster-King, Director of Workforce Development, Metro Atlanta Chamber, adds, “Helping returning citizens gain employment to fill open positions is good for business and for the community. Removing barriers to employment grows tax dollars, reduces crime and recidivism costs, and helps our economy and communities thrive. The Metro Atlanta Chamber is proud to be part of the team that helped move the Second Chances bill forward.”
GJP has long engaged employers on this issue, having hosted numerous round table discussions in the last five years. Employers have vocalized support of the effort for a legislative solution to address these hiring difficulties, Georgia employers reported that counterparts in other states could hire applicants with a record because individuals were able to get their record expunged. In Georgia, however, since almost all convictions stayed on a person’s record for life, they were at a disadvantage in hiring. In the last week, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Newell Brands, McKenney’s and other major Georgia employers sent letters and reached out to Legislators urging them to pass SB 288.