(The Center Square) – Millions of Georgians will start the new year with a second chance.
A new law that increases the number of criminal records that can be sealed takes effect Friday. The law, the result of Senate Bill 288, allows certain misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to qualify for expungement.
More than 4 million Georgia residents had a criminal record in 2016, according to the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO). Georgia is joining 41 other states that have eased record-sealing restrictions.
"It is vital that we continue to reform Georgia's criminal justice system so that reformation and reintegration is the goal, and not just punishment," said Corey Burres, GCO's vice president of communications. "With SB 288, we are making real efforts to help past offenders access opportunities that may not be available to them due to their criminal record."
The new law allows Georgians to petition the court to have some misdemeanor convictions restricted and sealed four years after completing their sentence if they have no new convictions and pending charges. Sex crimes, family violence and DUI offenses do not qualify for expungement.
Those who have been pardoned for nonviolent felony offenses can apply for expungement, under the law. It also would grant liability protection for employers who hire former felons.
Records of certain restricted charges would remain available for employers who serve vulnerable populations. Still, several major Georgia companies have shown support for the bill.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed SB 288 into law after full bipartisan support from the General Assembly.
"Georgia Justice Project has seen firsthand the many challenges our clients face due to their criminal record, and the negative impact on families and communities," said Douglas Ammar, Georgia Justice Project's executive director. "We are grateful that so many groups across the political spectrum recognized the importance of removing barriers to equity and economic mobility for the 4.3 million Georgians with a criminal record."
Proponents of the bill said it would decrease recidivism rates and allow more Georgians to join the workforce. In addition to employment, studies show a criminal record also can restrict access to housing and occupational licenses.
"We are encouraged that thousands will no longer be held back by their criminal record and will be able to find the dignity of work," Burres said. "We must continue down this path and remove the barriers that oftentimes drive returning citizens to a place of hopelessness and lead to re-offending."