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Criminal Justice Reform Proposal Would Allow Ex-Cons to Sue if Their Sealed Records are Released

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Thomas Worthy, left, and Michael Boggs, co-chairmen of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, led the discussion on easing ex-offenders’ re-entry into society.
Thomas Worthy, left, and Michael Boggs, co-chairmen of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, led the discussion on easing ex-offenders’ re-entry into society.

Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform council will present a slew of policy changes to the state Legislature next month aimed at making it easier for rehabilitated ex-convicts to obtain jobs and housing.

Many of those proposals would affect the practice of law in Georgia.

The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform unanimously voted Wednesday to support creating a private cause of action for citizens so they can sue reporting agencies and other private companies that publish incorrect or sealed criminal histories. The impetus behind the proposal is protection of offenders who have satisfied their sentencing requirements, completed mandatory treatment programs and been deemed to present a low risk of re-offending, including those convicted under the state's first offender statute.

Initially, the council entertained allowing citizens to sue consumer reporting agencies if they disclosed sealed or incorrect criminal histories to prospective employers. After discussion Wednesday, the members decided to broaden the proposal to encompass for-profit websites that publish mug shots and other criminal records, some of which the council deemed predatory because they charge citizens to remove posts.

"It's a way to use the private, civil process as opposed to the bureaucratic or criminal process to regulate those activities, thus making the private agencies more cautious and limiting [dissemination] to what the state says should be in the public record," said council member Paul Bolster, executive director of the Georgia Supportive Housing Association.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill that requires mug shot websites to remove arrest photos of people who meet certain criteria at no charge and within 30 days of notification. The new law also allows citizens to report sites in violation of the law to the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs, but deputy legislative counsel Jill Travis told the criminal justice reform council that she's not received any word about how well the new law is working. Tracking down websites and companies deemed predatory often proves difficult, she said.

Council members indicated they also will recommend that the Legislature consider a long-arm jurisdiction statute to go along with a private cause of action that would allow Georgia citizens to file suit in Georgia even if the reporting agency or website is headquartered elsewhere.

"If the company is based in Washington state, I doubt many of us could afford to go to Washington to sue them," said Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, who is a member of the council and Gov. Deal's son.

The council also approved a proposal that would prohibit most state agencies and departments from inquiring about someone's criminal background on job applications. The policy, casually referred to as "banning the box," would give rehabilitated offenders a fairer chance at employment, the council said.

Council co-chairman W. Thomas Worthy, deputy executive counsel to the governor, said the proposal is similar to what 10 other states and the city of Atlanta have done. However, he cautioned, it should not be broadened to cover private businesses.

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