Governor signs bill stiffening Georgia gang penalties

Georgia State Trooper Trent Kirchhefer stands with K-9 officer Vilma as Gov. Brian Kemp signs a bill clarifying penalties for harming a police dog, Wednesday, April 26, 2023, at Lake Lanier Islands in Buford, Ga. Kemp signed a number of public safety bills including one stiffening penalties for gang crimes and recruiting gang members. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Gov. Brian Kemp signed tougher penalties for gang crimes into Georgia law on Wednesday at a gathering of county sheriffs, marking the passage of one of his top legislative priorities of 2023 after the Republican put fighting crime at the forefront of his reelection campaign last year.

“We specifically chose this venue today to sign a few pieces of legislation to let you know that we’re in the fight with you as partners,” Kemp told members of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association meeting at Lake Lanier Islands.

Senate Bill 44 adds a mandatory five years to prison sentences for anyone convicted of a gang crime and 10 years for anyone convicted of recruiting minors into a gang.

“We’re helping to disrupt their recruitment efforts, and we will not let up until gangs in Georgia are completely gone because their members are behind bars and are unable to bring new members to replace them,” Kemp said.

The law, which goes into effect July 1, reverses a trend in Georgia championed by Kemp’s predecessor, fellow Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, of reducing mandatory sentences or refusing to add new ones.

Democrats opposing the measure said long prison terms would be expensive for taxpayers, despite little proof that they sway anyone from committing a crime. Critics also said the bill puts unreasonable restrictions on judges in sentencing.

Under Georgia’s previous anti-gang law, anyone convicted of criminal gang activity can be sentenced to an additional five to 20 years in prison, but a judge has the power to waive extra prison time.

Judges could order less prison time if they list specific findings, including that a defendant didn’t have a gun or has no prior felony conviction.

Those convicted of recruiting minors into gangs would be sentenced to at least 10 years of prison time unless a prosecutor asked the court to cut the sentence because a defendant provided substantial assistance against other criminals.

The measure also mandates that judges require cash bail from defendants who in the previous five years had been convicted of skipping out on bail or had an arrest warrant issued for missing a court date. It also requires judges to consider a person’s previous criminal history before releasing them without requiring cash bail.

Supporters argue the state needs to lock up prior offenders before trial to prevent further crimes, although judges are already supposed to deny bail to people they determine to be dangers to public safety.

Kemp said the rules will “address the revolving door of the criminal justice system.”

“I know you all, like our state partners, are tired of chasing the same people day after day and night after night,” Kemp said.

The governor also signed seven other bills, including:

— House Bill 227, making it a crime to use electronic or physical means to attack infrastructure,

— Senate Bill 155, clarifying the state law making it a crime to harm a police dog or a search and rescue dog.

— Senate Bill 215, allowing police officers to remove their own or their spouse’s home address and phone number from all property records on a county government’s website.

— Senate Bill 60, making it harder to buy or sell automotive catalytic converters in an attempt to reduce thefts.