AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Bill allowing judges to seal first offender records advances

A House committee advanced legislation Monday that would block public inspection of court records, arrest reports and other documents about crimes by first-time offenders.

The legislation, the subject of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report last week, would allow defendants sentenced under the First Offender Act to immediately ask a judge to seal all their records. Proponents say it would help people with a single criminal conviction lead more productive lives, with easier access to jobs and professional licenses.

The first-offender proposal is part of a large bill comprising the report of the Criminal Justice Reform Council, which has been looking at ways to ease the long-term effects of the past two decades of mass incarceration.

At Monday's committee hearing, according to a report by the Journal-Constitution's Laura Diaz, members of the council stood firm by their proposal, even as open-government advocates suggested it denies the public critical information about the workings of the state justice system.

Some employers, too, are opposed to the measure. Their ability to check the criminal records of prospective employees would be limited in some cases. While many defendants make a fresh start under first-offender status, others repeat their crimes or commit worse offenses.

Last week the Journal-Constitution reported on a Cobb County woman whose conviction on an embezzling charge was discharged under the First Offender Act. She got another job handling the books of a marble-supply company, and then was convicted of stealing more than $1 million from that employer.

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