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New Law Helps People Get Off Probation Early in Georgia

On May 3, 2021, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed probation reform bill, SB 105, into law. The new law helps provide relief to people who are serving long sentences on felony probation if they meet certain criteria.

This law is the latest in a line of legislation aimed at reducing the state’s overgrown population of probationers. Once infamous for having some of the longest probation sentences in the country, Georgia decreased the length of its average sentence by 49% between 2000 and 2018, dropping to 35th place for probation duration in the process.

Reform legislation signed by former Governor Nathan Deal in July of 2017, was a big part of this change. That law created two pathways for early termination of probation:

  • The first path was for people who had no prior felonies. It stated that, so long as certain criteria were met, there was a presumption that probation would be terminated once a “behavioral incentive date” (a date set at the discretion of the sentencing court for no later than three years after sentencing) was reached.
  • The second path was for people who had prior felonies but who were only charged with non-violent property crimes or drug offenses. This path said that after three years had passed if those same criteria had been met the court could “take whatever action it determine[d] would be for the best interest of justice and the welfare of society,” including ending the probation.

Despite the reforms of recent years, Georgia continues to have more people on felony probation than any other state. Because of this, the Georgia Justice Project and other reform-minded activists championed SB 105, which they hope will help keep the trend moving in the right direction.

The new law builds on the 2017 legislation, making the criteria for early termination more explicit, and providing that there is a presumption of termination for people who qualify for the second path as well as the first. This means that people with prior criminal records will also be presumed to be eligible for relief if they meet the criteria, so long they are under sentence for a nonviolent property or drug crime. The newly specified criteria for this relief are roughly the same for both paths. In each case, a probationer seeking termination is required:

  • to have paid any restitution that they owed as part of their sentence,
  • not to have had any probation revocations in the last two years
  • not to have been arrested for anything beyond a non-serious traffic offense since starting probation.

The text of the legislation is also clear about the fact that these changes apply retroactively to people who are already on probation—not just to people who are newly sentenced. The Georgia Justice Project estimates that roughly a quarter of Georgia’s felony probationers immediately became eligible for early termination when the law took effect earlier this month.