Georgia defines a felony as any "crime punishable by death, by imprisonment for life, or by imprisonment for more than 12 months." For offenses with potential jail time of a year or less, the law designates these crimes as misdemeanors.
Georgia has some of the toughest felony sentencing laws in the country, including two-strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and non-parolable offenses. Read on to learn how felony sentencing, probation, and parole work in Georgia.
Unlike many states, Georgia doesn't divide felony crimes into classifications, such as class A or level 1. Rather, statutes specify the maximum penalty allowed on a crime-by-crime basis. Some crimes may also be subject to enhanced penalties, such as mandatory minimum sentences.
Here are some examples of maximum felony penalties:
In Georgia, a judge may sentence any defendant convicted of a felony punishable by ten years or less in prison to a misdemeanor sentence instead of a felony sentence. These offenses are commonly referred to as "reducible felonies."
In addition to these maximum prison sentences shown above, offenders convicted of serious violent felonies (known as the "seven deadly sins"), repeat felony offenses, sex crimes, or hate crimes may face enhanced penalties, such as mandatory minimums, increased maximums, and parole ineligibility. Below are some examples.
Serious violent felonies. Anyone convicted of a serious violent felony—one of the "seven deadly sins"—is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence. The seven deadly sins are murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery, and aggravated child molestation. The law imposes a mandatory life sentence for a murder conviction. A defendant convicted of any of the remaining six deadly sins faces a 10- or 25-year minimum sentence without parole for a first conviction and life imprisonment for a second conviction.
Repeat offenders. Georgia carries harsh penalty enhancements for repeat felony offenders. For a second felony conviction, a judge must impose the maximum sentence allowed by the law. Offenders on their fourth felony lose parole eligibility.
Sex offenders. A defendant convicted of a sex offense (defined in law) faces a presumptive, mandatory minimum sentence that doesn't qualify for probation.
Hate crimes. If the judge or jury determines that the defendant intentionally targeted a victim because of their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, a mandatory minimum sentence of two years applies.
Other enhancements. Certain felonies impose enhanced penalties or carry mandatory minimums based on aggravating factors in a crime, such as committing an armed offense or offense against a protected class of victims (such as a police officer or elderly victim). For instance, a person convicted of aggravated assault faces a sentence of one to 20 years in prison. The minimum sentence increases from one to ten years if the assault was against a public safety officer and involved the discharge of a firearm.
A defendant convicted of a felony will either be sentenced immediately or later at a sentencing hearing. The judge can impose any sentence up to the maximum authorized by the law (including enhancements). Typical sentencing considerations will include the severity and circumstances of the current offense, the defendant's criminal record, and victims' statements.
When sentencing, the judge must specify a fixed term, such as 15 years' incarceration. The judge can suspend, probate, or execute all or any portion of the sentence term unless restricted by law.
When suspending or probating a sentence, the judge announces a sentence but holds off on sending the offender to prison. Generally, the judge will order conditions that the offender must abide by to remain in the community and avoid serving time in prison. Those serving a probated sentence will also be subject to felony probation supervision. (More on probation below.)
An executed sentence means to carry out the sentence and send the offender to prison. The offender must serve the entire sentence unless released earlier by a parole board. (More on parole below.)
Georgia law also offers several sentencing alternatives to prison for first-time offenders and high-risk offenders whose crimes stem from underlying issues such as addiction or mental health.
First offenders. First-offender sentencing options apply only to those charged with a first non-violent felony or first low-level drug possession felony. Instead of entering a conviction, the judge may suspend the proceedings and place the defendant on probation. If the defendant successfully completes the probation terms, the judge dismisses the case entirely and the offender avoids a conviction and a criminal record.
Accountability courts. Accountability courts aim to address a high-risk offender's underlying addiction or mental health issues. These courts involve a team of professionals who work together to develop a treatment plan and hold the offender accountable. Common accountability courts include drug court, DUI court, mental health court, and veterans court. They typically involve intensive supervision, immediate sanctions, and frequent court appearances. Eligibility depends on the specific court's rules and referral requirements.
Felony probation offers offenders a chance to serve all or a portion of their sentence in the community rather than behind bars. Defendants serving probated sentences have the threat of prison time hanging over their heads as an incentive to comply with their probation terms. Violating probation means the judge can revoke the probated sentence and send or return the defendant to prison.
Standard probation terms generally include reporting to a probation officer, going to work or school, supporting legal dependents, not violating the law, paying restitution, performing community service, and undergoing drug or alcohol testing. Special conditions might include no-contact orders, electronic monitoring, counseling, or addiction treatment.
Georgia has several different types of probation programs, including standard probation, probation boot camps, special probation, sex offender probation, and sentencing options systems (allowing a continuum of sanctions for violations). The law also authorizes early termination of probation for qualified offenders who have no new arrests, no probation revocations, and no outstanding restitution balances.
If the judge executes the sentence, the offender goes to prison and faces the full sentence term behind bars unless released earlier by the parole board. Most inmates will be considered for parole at least once during their sentence.
With the exception of inmates not eligible for parole or those serving a minimum sentence, most inmates become eligible for automatic parole consideration after serving one-third of their sentence.
At the time of the automatic parole review, the inmate's file goes to the parole board for administrative review (no hearing). Board members use a set of Parole Decisions Guidelines to review the file and determine whether to set a tentative parole month or deny parole.
If granted a tentative parole month, the Board will make a release decision at that time. The board can move up the tentative parole month if the offender earns performance incentive credits for good behavior and rehabilitative efforts. If denied parole, the inmate must wait another five to eight years for parole consideration. In most cases, there will be no parole hearing unless an inmate contests the Board's decision.
For those released on parole, most will be subject to parole conditions and supervision for the remaining length of their sentence term. Certain parolees convicted of non-violent felonies may be eligible for early termination of parole.
While on parole, the parolee must abide by the terms of their release. A violation of those terms can mean revocation of parole and return to prison.
If you're arrested for or charged with a felony, contact a criminal defense attorney. An experienced lawyer can guide you through the criminal justice process and protect your rights. A felony conviction can mean a lengthy prison sentence and impact future charging and sentencing decisions.
You should also talk to your lawyer about the collateral consequences of a felony conviction. Being a convicted felon can hurt you when you are looking for a job or applying to rent a house or apartment. Convicted felons lose the right to vote, carry firearms, and obtain certain professional licenses. Expungement options (called record restrictions in Georgia) are very limited for felonies.
(O.C.G.A. §§ 15-1-15; 16-1-3; 16-5-2; 17-10-1, -1.4, -6.1, -6.2, -7, -8, -11, -17, -20; 42-8-22, 35, -35.1, -37, -60; 42-9-40, -44, -45 (2021).)