Georgia House backs Kemp's push for tougher gang penalties

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp speaks at a press conference at the state capitol. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Georgia House members on Monday turned aside objections that tougher anti-gang sentencing laws would sweep too many young people into prison for long stretches, passing a bill backed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp that would crack down on people convicted of recruiting minors into a gang.

“Gangs must recruit in order to survive, and we are sending a strong message with this bill, that if you come into our state and you are recruiting our children, that we will have severe punishment for you,” said Soo Hong, a Lawrenceville Republican who carries bills for Kemp as a floor leader.

Senate Bill 44 passed on a 99-74 vote and goes back to the Senate for more debate because the House amended it to include a much-reduced version of stricter cash bail provisions that senators are seeking.

The bill reverses a trend of Georgia lawmakers reducing mandatory sentences or refusing to add new ones. Now Kemp and other Republicans who campaigned last year on fighting crime say more criminals must be locked away for long stretches.

Opponents say there’s no proof that longer prison sentences work. They also warn that the law could be used against juveniles tried as adults, or older teens who recruit their younger siblings and friends into a gang.

“Our laws need to be flexible enough, they need to be nimble enough to allow us to deal with the most violent among us, and restore and rehabilitate the ones that we can,” said Tanya Miller, an Atlanta Democrat and former prosecutor. “This bill robs our criminal justice system of this carefully crafted balance.”

Today, people who are convicted of criminal gang activity under Georgia’s sweeping anti-gang law can be sentenced to an additional five to 20 years in prison, but a judge has the power to waive extra prison time. Under the new measure, judges’ ability to waive extra prison time would be reduced. Judges could order less prison time if they list specific findings, including that a defendant didn’t have a gun, is not a gang leader, has no prior felony conviction or didn’t cause death or injury.

Penalties for recruiting minors into gangs would be much stiffer. Judges would be required to sentence those people to at least 10 years of actual prison time unless a prosecutor asked the court to cut the sentence because a defendant provided substantial assistance against other criminals.

Prosecutors would also get a new right to appeal lenient anti-gang sentences.

“What this is going to do is those who are recruiting our youth 17 years of age or younger, you are going to have them off the streets for 10 or 15 years,” said House Judiciary Non-civil Committee Chairman Tyler Paul Smith, a Bremen Republican.

Democrats said long prison terms would be expensive for taxpayers, despite little proof that they dissuade anyone from committing a crime.

“Incarceration for incarceration’s sake makes no sense,” said Rep. Shea Roberts, an Atlanta Democrat. “Taxpayers are going to bear this cost from this rising prison population.”

But Republicans argue that criminals respond to harsh penalties by changing their behavior.

“If you don’t believe enhancing penalties has any effect, then I probably have lost you,” said Rob Leverett, an Elberton Republican. “But I do believe that is part of a sound strategy for addressing this issue.

The House version of the bill also includes some changes to bail eligibility that Hong characterizes as putting current practice into law. It would say that people could not be let out of jail before trial without putting up cash or property if they had been convicted of skipping out on bail in the last five years or if a warrant had been issued for a person’s failure to appear in court for a crime other than a traffic offense in the last five years.

It also calls for a judge to consider a person’s criminal history before setting bail.

However, that’s much less severe than Senate Bill 63, which adds 53 additional crimes to a list of offenses requiring cash bail, including passing a worthless check, or misdemeanors such as reckless driving or fighting in a public place. That proposal says no one who has been convicted of three prior felonies, or has been convicted of any felony within the preceding seven years, can be let out of jail without posting cash or property bail. And it says no one could be automatically allowed to leave jail without being required to post bail unless they have appeared before a judge.