GA Representative filing bill to change parole board process, public access

CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - As lawmakers prepare for the upcoming General Assembly, state and local officials are hoping to make Savannah a safer place.

Rep. Jesse Petrea is working on a bill that would make Georgia's parole process clear and understanding.

Rep. Petrea plans to file this bill next week with Georgia Legislation to make files for offenders released on parole subject to the Open Records Act.

Elected officials are trying to fight a problem that involves violent offenders being let back into communities. Some only to re-commit such heinous behavior.

For that reason, Rep. Petrea is the driving force behind this bill, along with support from the District Attorney's Association.

"The community has a right to know how an individual has been performing in prison before we release someone early," said Rep. Petrea.

He this is a basic right for his constituents; more transparency in the decision to allow a violent offender back into your community and some violent offenders not having a change in attitude towards criminal activity.

"There are countless examples of this, individuals being released early on parole, return to our community and commit violent again, violent felonies," said Rep. Petrea.

One family from Tybee Island can testify to that horrible nightmare.

Barry and Sunni Brown both know all too well the pain some violent offenders cause. They're daughter Lauren Brown Smart was married to a parolee from Ohio. Back in June of 2014, she was killed in her Wilmington Island home by her then husband, Norman Smart, while their children were in the home.

"We tried our best to get our daughter away from him but he already had her captured, he was like a vulture, like a predator," said Barry Brown.

Now, Norman Smart is serving a life sentence, without the possibility of parole. However, the pain of Lauren Brown Smart absence is still felt to this day.

When asked what are they going to tell their grandson about his mom and when he asks how she was killed, the Browns responded, "He's already come up with the saying of, he's looking for his angel mommy now."

Looking at the national statistics on recidivism, more than 70 percent of violent offenders are arrested again, often for violent crimes. This problem doesn't stop at the doorsteps of Petrea.

Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap is joining the fight, too.

"It's very simple. What are you basing it on? What are the records you're looking at; if someone is in prison, how are they doing," said Heap.

Questions that some folks would like answered, which overtime, has become increasingly hard to do.

"We use to get the information as they're disciplinary records, now they've told us that, that is a secret," said Heap.

The justice system allows prosecutors to take a more active role in revocation hearings for probation offenders but for parolees, the weight isn't the same.

"The person charged, who is reoffending, has the right to have council, has the right be heard, the state has to put up its evidence. Why not on parole hearings?" asked Heap.

Once an offender is up for parole in Georgia, the individual's file is sent to each parole board member. From there recommendations are made, but the board does not meet and the offender can walk back into the community, all without having to see the parole board.

"Right now, the process is intentionally non-transparent. That's not a good thing in almost any aspect of government," said Rep. Petrea.

Heap and Petrea can point to at least three cases of inmates paroled or considered for parole in the last year who committed extremely violent murders here in Chatham County.

Our district attorney's concerns are now being echoed by the entire Georgia District Attorney's Association.

We will, of course, let you know if Petrea's bill advances in the General Assembly.

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