A new law went into effect on July 1, 2017, that will benefit criminal defendants facing their first felony convictions. The new law has no effect on existing first offender treatment. Senate Bill 174 provides these new changes to O.C.G.A. § 17-10-1 which applies to sentencing. The new sentencing guidelines create a sort of “early expiration date” for probation under certain conditions.
What is the new Probation Rule?
The new law says that felony probation sentences must now include a “behavioral incentive date” scheduled within three years from the sentence date. If the defendant has been compliant with all terms of probation, the court will be notified within 60 days from that date. Upon receiving such notice, the court must terminate the defendant’s probation unless the prosecutor or the court requests a hearing. This law applies only to felony offenses where the defendant has no prior felony convictions. There are a few exceptions pointed out below.
What Does it Mean?
The new law provides for early termination of probation when the defendant is compliant with his or her sentence. It allows some defendants a chance to finish their sentence and get back on their feet sooner if they do everything right. Also, the process is automatic unless the court or the prosecutor takes extra steps. This means that many defendants who would otherwise have to file a motion to modify sentence can receive relief without acting themselves. Ultimately, defendants’ probation terms should terminate early in more cases under the new law.
Why is it Important?
The new law shows that lawmakers are seeing the problems with probation and seeking to correct them. Defendants often show less improvement as the length of probation increases. Rarely does a person change their behavior much beyond the first few years of supervision. Usually, probation is either successful from the start or the defendant ends up in a cycle of probation revocation hearings. Long probation sentences also set defendants up for failure down the road. Employers hesitate to hire offenders on probation. The chance of having a technical violation also increases with the length of probation. This new law helps to solve those problems by reducing the period of probation for those who work hard to follow the rules.
What are the Issues?
Still, the law leaves the door open for the problems of the old system to keep occurring. The court has the option of holding a hearing before terminating probation under the new law. At such a hearing, “the court shall take whatever action it determines would be for the best interest of justice and the welfare of society.” O.C.G.A. § 17-10-1(a)(1)(B). Therefore, the courts have broad discretion on whether to grant this relief, which could be abused at times.
Further, the new law only applies to cases that do not have a split sentence. A split sentence is a sentence in which the jail period is split between actual time in jail and supervision. The issue with the new law is that judges may impose split sentences more often to bypass the new rule. Therefore, a defendant could serve jail time he or she might not have served before the law. The law is new, so it will take time to see whether these issues do cause these problems.
When Should I Get a Lawyer?
You should hire a lawyer before you are sentenced to get the best possible sentence and take advantage of offerings such as the new law. The sooner you hire a criminal defense attorney, the more chances he or she will have to help you. After the sentence, a lawyer can decide whether a behavioral incentive date applies to your case. Also, if the court holds a hearing before granting termination, you need a lawyer to advocate on your behalf at that hearing. Even if the new law cannot help you, a lawyer can file a motion to modify or terminate probation and seek relief outside the new rule.