Is Georgia becoming a Police State?
If a state Senate committee has its way, the public would be blocked from knowing about many local arrests; those convicted of certain crimes would have an easier time having their criminal records expunged or restricted; and employers and landlords would not be able to ask job candidates or prospective renters about their criminal history.
A report released Dec. 31 from the Georgia “Senate Expungement Reform Study Committee” called for those and other changes to state laws to make it easier for those with a criminal record to get hired and obtain housing and to keep past arrests secret.
“The State of Georgia should adopt measures that encourage employers to hire ex-offenders who can demonstrate rehabilitation,” the report says.
In addition to restricting what employers and landlords would know about someone’s criminal history, the report also calls for the state to allow secret arrests.
“Access to booking information and mug shots should be limited to use in the defense and prosecution of criminal offenses and by law enforcement agencies. This information should not be made available to the public,” the report states.
In other words, make Georgia a Police State that allows secret arrests and restrict criminal history records from the media and the public.
You might think that such a report was crafted by a group of bleeding-heart liberals who are trying to help criminals get jobs and rent housing.
This was a Republican-dominated Senate committee and included Republican Sen. Butch Miller of neighboring Hall County.
So how did a group dominated by “conservatives” come up with a plan for making Georgia a Stalinist-state of secret arrests?
There are several issues that seem to be driving this runaway bus:
1. The Internet now makes it easier for someone’s criminal history to be discovered. In the past, someone could get into legal trouble in one state, but move to another place and it would be very difficult for that past to follow them since most criminal records were local in nature. (In fact, fleeing one place to start over in another location has a long tradition in American history. Many of those who first came to America were fleeing problems in their native European lands. Once here, those who got in trouble would often move to new territories to start over again. The great migration road from Pennsylvania, Virginia and other Northern colonies down to the Carolinas was a major route for those seeking to start over in a new place.) With the Internet today, however, the past is never the past. One quick Google search can turn up someone’s complete history, including criminal charges from another state. Starting over is more difficult for those who move. Some people don’t like that.
2. The rise of publications like “Bad and Busted” has offended the sense of fairness in reporting criminal offenses. Some of those kinds of publications make their money by allowing people to pay a fee to have their names and mugshots removed before publication. That’s not reporting news, that’s legally squeezing the rich to pay to not be embarrassed.
3. Criminal records in Georgia are a mess. There are errors in some of the records and there are no real comprehensive records that cover all law enforcement jurisdictions. Getting errors out of arrest records in the state is a nightmare for people who were wrongly charged with a crime they didn’t commit.
While some of those concerns are legitimate, this Senate committee went drastically overboard in its recommendations to make many arrest records secret in the state. Employers should be able to find out about a prospective employee’s criminal history. Landlords should be able to find out about a prospective renter’s criminal history. And arrest booking reports and mug shots should not be kept secret from the public.
Can you imagine what would happen in this state if law enforcement officials could make arrests in secret? What checks-and-balances would there be if that happened? How would citizens find out if one of their local public officials had been arrested? How would parents know if a local teacher had been charged with some kind of sexual abuse allegations? How would you know if your neighbor had been arrested for peeping into area windows?
Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson put it this way:
“Of course we have other protections in this country, but the general notion of not allowing the public to know who is arrested, for what, and their identities through photographs would remove great safeguards for individual citizens, and for effective oversight on how police authorities and jailers perform their duties.”
Secret arrests are the kinds of things that happened in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR. In a democracy, that kind of information should be open for everyone to know.
Of course, there are going to be errors. Some people are wrongly charged either by faulty witnesses or bad cops. And some people make mistakes when they’re young that they’re unlikely to repeat as they mature.
And yet, those are rare events compared to the overall number of legitimate arrests being made across the state and nation. Georgia should not upend the openness of its criminal arrests system just because a small handful of people have been mistreated.
In fact, if arrests were kept secret, there would likely be even more abuse of the innocent because a major check-and-balance would no longer exist. Without public scrutiny and oversight, what would have happened to black citizens in Birmingham and other Southern cities in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement? Do we really want to give the Bull Conners of the world the right to round up people with secret arrests?
Restricting access to arrest records in the state is a bad idea. A better solution is to fix the record-keeping problems that now exist in state and local crime databases. That’s something the state should be doing anyway.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.