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Justice reforms include an injustice

Posted: April 4, 2012 - 12:04am

One of the companies that scrubs homes and businesses after fires has a reassuring slogan (paraphrased): “As if it never happened.”

That’s a great promise for a messy cleanup. It’s not so great when it comes to public records, and that’s an unfortunate side-effect of House Bill 1176, a bundled series of criminal justice reforms approved by the Georgia Legislature and awaiting the governor’s signature.

Among other items, the legislation includes a measure filed by state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, to remove the statute of limitations from prosecutions for child molestation and similar charges.

It corrects the current flaw in the law in which victims younger than 18 have just seven years to seek justice. When that expires, it’s as if the crime never happened – except, of course, to the victim.

Ironically, however, a truly awful segment of HB 1176 takes justice in precisely the opposite direction. It requires, in many cases, records of those arrested for crimes be sealed permanently from public review.

It’s as if the arrest never happened.

In what is perhaps the understatement of the year, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation says the provisions are “a very bad idea.” More to the point, the watchdog group worries that the law sets up a system in which the public would never know if there are things hiding in the criminal history of a candidate for office, say, or for a prospect for a sensitive public job.

Other media organizations, most of which were caught by surprise by the late-in-the-session amendments to the criminal justice reform bill, are adamantly opposed to the changes, and should be.

That includes local radio reporter Scott Hudson. His own victimization as a child, and later discovery that the molester was protected because the statute of limitations had expired, created the spark that fueled his quest for Harbin’s legislation.

But in a further irony, Hudson the journalist finds himself at odds with the law sought by Hudson the victim because of the unrelated secrecy provisions elsewhere in the catch-all bill.

“We have spent four years working on something that should be common sense, only to be turned around,” Hudson says. “I was shocked and appalled at how this would happen.”

Barring the preferred outcome – an unlikely veto from Gov. Nathan Deal – supporters of Harbin’s legislation are hoping that part of HB 1176 would survive legal challenges to other sections of the bill.

In the meantime, journalists rightly concerned about these changes in the law must be even more energetic in reporting arrests. Lawmakers might be able to find a way to sanitize public records as if arrests never occurred, but they can’t whitewash media archives.

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Comments (4)

Riverman1

Sealed Divorce Records

Divorce court records for a couple of prominent individuals were recently sealed. How do you feel about that?

Barry Paschal

Not good, but entirely legal

Sealed court records typically are a great example not of a reward for "prominence," but a reward for access to the system. Everyone theoretically has such access, but few people ever think to attempt to take advantage of it, or have the money to pay a lawyer to pursue it.

In the case of the criminal justice reforms referenced in this editorial, most people probably aren't aware that some criminal records similarly can be sealed with a court order. The difference under these reforms is that it requires them to be sealed in some cases, rather than merely allowing it as judicial discretion.

A reality of the sealing of divorce cases is that we (the public) don't care unless it's someone in whom we have an interest. Yet if we didn't care, there would be no desire to seal it, either. Joe Sixpack can have his divorce records sealed if he asks the court, too, but he's unlikely to ask - because no one but him and his wife cares about his divorce.

Ed Tarver and Joe Neal Jr. (and former Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson, the adulterer whose records also were sealed)? Yeah, we want all the details. But do we (the public) need to know them? Apparently the judges in their cases didn't think so.

Riverman1

Sealing Neal's Divorce Records Pure Favoritism

I can see no justification for sealing Neal's divorce records. In fact, those records may have offered evidence for a criminal trial as we all know. If it's simply a legal option we all have then I would ask why don't all divorce case attorneys routinely ask for such sequestering of records? The fact is judges would not allow such across the board sealing of records because the public outrage would be too much. Would the move to take records from the public go past divorce proceedings to other cases? In regards to Neal, you may say well the DA can request Judge Craig unseal the records because the information could be useful in criminal proceedings against Neal. But we both know that's not going to happen. Realistically, Wright would never go against her mentor in that fashion that would embarrass the judge in this matter where he is clearly wrong.

Anon123

measured injustice

georgia.arrests.org has leveraged OSGA's previous open record view to publically post 1.46M Georgia arrest mugshots and accusations. Arms length associates extort $399 per mugshot to remove this mis-appropriated information from Google's index. Guilt or innocence plays no role in Robert Wiggen's scheme to profit by tormenting victims of Geogia's previous open record policy.

HB 1176 allows those that need to know this information (police, justice, and accountable criminally sensitive industries) to continue to solicit for previous arrest information.

It leaves extortionists and the general public without a means to publically re-judge closed legal matters or break the law for forming an unlawful bias and/or actions due to such bias - effective of prejudice.

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