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Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - 12:25pm

2012 Could Bring Sentencing Reform

State House Speaker David Ralston says lawmakers could take up criminal sentencing reform in next year’s legislative session. The issue was one of several Ralston named at a legislative preview Wednesday in Gwinnett County.

Ralston said he has received a draft report on sentencing reforms from a panel looking at the issue. The budget for the state’s prison system, he says, now exceeds $1 billion a year, and that's a problem.

One possibility is the expansion of specialized courts for lower-level offenders.

Speaking after a talk at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, the speaker says that doesn’t mean going soft on violent crime.

“There are people in our society that are in prison now that the taxpayers of Georgia are housing, many of whom I think would benefit as would the state from them having a second opportunity to be productive citizens, if their crime is in the nature of, say, a drug possession offense,” he said.

Lawmakers would have to hold hearings, and propose a bill.

Ralston says Georgia probably won’t need to make additional deep budget cuts in next year's budget. He said lawmakers have reduced the budget by 20 percent in the past three years.

Now the state’s tax collections are rising.

Still, the Blue Ridge Republican says he’ll need a pair of "sharp scissors" for next year’s budget.

“We’re still going to do some trimming and we’re still going to do what I believe strongly we need to do which is to avoid asking the people of Georgia for more of their money in the form of tax increases,” he told business leaders.

Lawmakers will also likely take another stab at tax reform. A panel is also looking at how Georgia funds its higher education system.

Some legislators are already holding hearings on allowing horse racing here in Georgia, with an eye toward passing a constitutional amendment. Ralston said horse race tracks are not financially feasible without casinos, and it's known yet if that's what Georgians want. Gov. Nathan Deal has said he has no plans to expand gambling beyond the lottery, which funds college scholarships.

The legislative session begins on Jan. 9.