Glitch in quest for reasonable sentencing laws

More than once in these pages we have applauded the efforts of Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly to rewrite the state's criminal sentencing statutes. Years of political chest-beating, in the form of mandatory throw-away-the-key sentencing laws, produced a system both impractical and impracticable, stuffing prisons with nonviolent offenders and costing taxpayers billions.

The need for reform is, if anything, even more acute in this pressured economy. But a troublesome detail in a House bill passed last week gives us pause.

The main thrust of the bill is exactly what's needed: reduced prison terms for nonviolent drug and property criminals to save the harshest and most expensive punishments for the worst of the worst.

But a so-called "expungement" provision would restrict the records of those cleared of criminal charges from public access. These, remember, are public records of legal procedures paid for with taxpayer dollars.

There are, to be sure, legitimate concerns on both sides. Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation says the proposed law would "undermine the entire purpose of the Open Records Act, particularly when a citizen is ultimately found not guilty by our criminal justice system The proposed additions tilt the balance dangerously towards secrecy and away from the public's interest in open government."

The Georgia Justice Project argues for the other side: People have been denied jobs or housing, or barred from school activities with their children, because of criminal charges on their records that were later dismissed. The charges are still open to public access, but the disposition of the case sometimes takes up to two years to get into the record. In one case, a woman charged with child abuse was later cleared by evidence that her child had an allergic reaction to medicine.

The relevance of such details, however unfair and unfortunate, to sentencing -- which by definition involves not just charges but conviction -- is not altogether clear. In any event, the best way to correct the problem is not by restricting public access, but with more timely and efficient processing.

Public accountability of the court system, or any other part of government, cannot be about outcomes alone -- it must also be about the integrity of the process. Public access is dangerously incomplete if all we are allowed to know is the charge (and sometimes, under this bill, not even that) and the verdict.

"One of the things that keeps law enforcement and district attorneys' offices honest is the sure knowledge that the public can look at their files when a case is over," said Tom Clyde, an attorney for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Sealing those files automatically when a case is dismissed or ends in acquittal takes away an important check on the system."

Most of House Bill 1176 sounds like good law. This clause doesn't.