The Georgia House of Representatives is considering bills to increase penalties for fentanyl distribution and tighten worker pay for police – WABE

The Georgia House of Representatives is expected to consider criminal justice legislation aimed at toughening penalties for people who sell fentanyl that leads to an overdose and a bill that would give police officers more pay while recovering from recover from serious injuries sustained at work.

A bipartisan Senate majority supported a bill that voted to create the crime of aggravated involuntary manslaughter for those convicted of supplying or selling fentanyl-laced drugs that resulted in the death of another person. The measure is now before the House chamber, which has until March 28 to pass legislation for this year.

The bill is named after former Lowndes County resident Austin Walters, who suffered from anxiety and depression in 2021 and purchased Xanax pills laced with fentanyl. In September 2021, Walters was killed by a single fentanyl-laced pill after suffering from anxiety attacks that led him to seek drugs on the streets.

In the days after Walters' death, his father sent an email to Cogdell Republican Sen. Russ Goodman asking state lawmakers for help in crafting criminal penalties for people who supply fentanyl, a substance that carries 100- times more effective than morphine.

Typically, fentanyl overdoses are caused by the substance being manufactured illegally by mixing it with another drug without the user's knowledge.

According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl was responsible for more than 70,000 of the 106,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2021.

Under Senate Bill 465, someone convicted of the new charge could face between 10 and 30 years or life in prison. To bring involuntary manslaughter charges, prosecutors do not have to prove that the defendant knew the substance was contaminated.

Goodman said the legislation gives law enforcement and prosecutors stronger tools to punish fentanyl dealers. On Thursday, he thanked Walters' parents for fighting to ensure other parents don't suffer the heartache caused by the toxic substance.

“Drug dealers benefit from Georgia's current law requiring the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the dealer knew the chemical identity of the drugs he was selling,” Goodman said. “Under Austin law, if the defendant intentionally sells what he believes is a controlled substance and that substance kills someone, law enforcement has the resources to bring that drug dealer to justice.”

Democratic Sen. Kim Jackson of Atlanta said that while the bill gives judges sentencing discretion, the new crime could also lead to criminal charges against a college student who unknowingly shares mixed drugs with a friend.

Goodman said the new law is intended to ensure those who distribute illegal drugs to a teenager are held accountable.

“This epidemic is plaguing our country and killing our children,” he said on the Senate floor in late February. “It is my hope that this increased deterrence will ensure that these fentanyl-laced drugs never show up in the hands of this 17-year-old child.”

Henry County deputy shot in the line of duty inspires new bill

House Democrats have until March 28 to pass a Senate bill named after a Henry County lawmaker who lost wages not covered by workers' compensation while recovering from injuries recovered from injuries sustained after being shot during an ambush.

Senate Bill 371, known as the Daniel D. Podsiadly, Jr. Act, would change the way the State Board of Worker's Compensation handles cases in which police officers suffer a catastrophic injury in the line of duty.

Under the law, the injured officer would be entitled to the same benefits and pay as before the injury. A catastrophic injury claim would be investigated by the State Board of Workers' Compensation to determine whether an office is entitled to the difference between its workers' compensation and its law enforcement pay.

Podsiadly and two Clayton County police officers were shot in July 2023 while pursuing a man suspected of killing four people in a Hampton neighborhood a day earlier. The 30-year-old Henry representative testified before a Senate committee about the stress of having to pay his bills while recovering from serious injuries.

Henry County Sheriff Reginald Scandrett organized a fundraiser to help pay his deputy's bills, but soon afterward contacted state Sen. Brian Strickland, a Republican from McDonough, to request that the state provide assistance to officials engaged in similar causes situations, have to provide financial support. Workers' compensation generally pays about two-thirds of a worker's average weekly wage, and in Georgia the maximum weekly amount for temporary disability is $675.

Strickland would co-sponsor the legislation with Democratic Sen. Emanuel Jones, who also represents part of Henry County.

“He recently returned to work and is once again serving the citizens of Henry County, but because of his service and leadership from Sheriff Scandrett, they wanted to see this legislation passed. In the event that another officer finds themselves in a similar situation,” Strickland said.

“Senate Bill 371 allows the state to step up and support these peace officers to ensure they have less to worry about paying their family’s living bills while they recover at home,” he said.

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.