For The Record

Georgia House panel advances Kemp-backed bill to toughen gang penalties

By: - March 13, 2023 7:44 pm

A Georgia House Judiciary Subcommittee on Monday advanced Senate Bill 44 that sets a mandatory five-year prison sentence for recruiting minors into gangs and adds stiffer sentences for other gang-related offenses. Ichigo121212/Pixabay

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s gang crackdown legislation is on track to become the first tough-on-crime law to move through the Georgia Legislature in 2023.

The Kemp-backed Senate Bill 44 was advanced by a House judiciary subcommittee on Monday by a party line vote, creating a mandatory five-year prison sentence for gang-related offenses and adding another five years to a conviction of recruiting minors or people with disabilities to join street gangs. The legislation advances to the full House Judiciary Committee despite objections that imposing longer mandatory minimum sentences and curtailing judges’ discretion will run counter to its intention of reducing the power of gangs.

If convicted of street-gang offenses, a person must serve at least five years in prison, along with other charges that could add more time. The defendant could receive leniency if they help convict other gang members. 

According to SB 44’s critics, Georgia already has some of the country’s strongest laws on the books to punish violent and gang-related crimes, and minors are routinely transferred from juvenile court to adult court.

In Georgia, a child can be charged with some felony offenses as young as 13 years old, said Christina Anderson, a policy fellow at Emory University School of Law’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center.

Increasing criminal penalties won’t stop public gangs from recruiting children and teenagers, she said. The focus should be on strengthening community-based initiatives where poverty and low education levels make young people more likely to join gangs, she said.

“This bill would criminalize that 13 year old without any consideration of why their child was in the gang in the first place,” Anderson said.

Sen. Bo Hatchett, a Corneillia Republican, said the legislation would give prosecutors and judges more tools to infiltrate criminal organizations and prevent more young people from being taken advantage of by violent groups.

“Governor Kemp has made tackling criminal street gangs a priority since the beginning of his administration,” said Hatchett, who is sponsoring the measure. “Through listening to local law enforcement and prosecutors, and with the help from the Legislature, the governor is championing one of the strongest criminal street gang statutes in the country.”

The bill also mandates that a judge cannot release a person convicted of bail jumping or failing to appear in court without putting up cash or property as collateral. And a judge must take the accused’s criminal history into consideration when deciding whether to release a person on a signature bond.

Rep. Yasmin Neal, a Jonesboro Democrat, questioned whether the new law could entrap minors. The former Clayton County police officer said she opposes the legislation’s mandatory prison terms.

“Overcrowded prisons are already eating up taxpayer dollars,” Neal said. “ I would like to see the body start shifting to a position where we start trying to get people out of the system rehabilitated and into jobs.”

The bill states that a person charged with a street gang crime, which doesn’t include recruiting a minor, could have their sentence reduced if they cooperated with prosecutors and didn’t have a prior conviction that was disqualifying.

James Woodall, public policy associate for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said that the bill is written in way that people who would meet the terms for a reduced prison sentence are those who have less liability and therefore are put in greater danger if they turn in older gang members. 

“They’re likely to be young,” he said. “They’re likely to be lower on the totem pole of the organization of that structure they’re in.”

Cara Convery, who leads GOP Attorney General Chris Carr’s gang prosecution unit, said that prosecutors would have to meet specific legal standards in order to convict a person of being involved in gang activity.

Titus Nichols, a former prosecutor for the Augusta Judicial Circuit and an Atlanta lawyer, said the bill not only removes a judge’s discretion, but also gives a district attorney the authority to appeal the judge’s ruling, which could put a teenager in a vulnerable position.

“Sometimes it allows the prosecutor to bootstrap a weak case by saying, ‘well plead to this or we’re going to keep the enhancement in place,’” he said.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.