The House has voted to abolish the state’s pre-trial diversion program, which allows first-time offenders to avoid having a criminal conviction on their records in many cases.
Approval of HB694 came after sometimes contentious debate, much of it over an amendment proposed by Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, that he said would “fix this program and not just kill it outright… for the sake of a couple of D.As (district attorneys) who got their toes stepped on.”
The current law, enacted in 1975, excludes defendants charged with Class A and B felonies – mostly violent offenses — from getting pre-trial diversion, but allows it for some specified Class C felonies. Dennis’ amendment would have made all Class C defendants ineligible along with all those accused of sexual offenses. It would also have placed into law various new criteria to be used in determining eligibility.
Dennis’ amendment was killed on a 55-36 vote. The bill itself, sponsored by House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, was subsequently approved 74-23. It now is scheduled for a vote Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The present law gives defendants a legal right to pre-trial diversion and, if not granted in a case meeting the criteria, can lead to a judge throwing out a subsequent conviction. Proponents of repeal say this has led to many abuses wherein clearly guilty defendants go free and then have nothing on their record to enhance punishment for subsequent offenses.
In a typical pre-trial diversion case, the defendant has his or her record expunged after a probationary period of up to two years. If it is abolished, “judicial diversion” would remain, wherein the defendant must plead guilty and then be granted probation by the judge, who could later decide to expunge the record at the end of probation.
Maggart said the current system allows criminals to “escape responsibility for their actions” and favors “wealthier defendants” who can afford attorneys. Critics disputed both points.
Dennis said the proposition that defendants avoid responsibility was “absolutely false” since they typically must pay court costs, make restitution to victims and meet all conditions of good behavior for up to two years.
And Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, said that repeal of a right to pre-trial diversion would leave economically-disadvantaged defendants subject to the whim of district attorneys general while “the sons and daughters of the rich and famous” would escape punishment. She wondered aloud “how many people in this room” had escaped punishment for youthful wrongdoing because “somebody called your momma and daddy.”