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.