Tougher gang penalties sought by Kemp approved by lawmakers

Gov. Brian Kemp with several Georgia Supreme Court justices at his 2023 State of the State address on Jan. 25 at the Georgia state Capitol. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Georgia lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to tougher penalties for gang crimes, a measure sought by Gov. Brian Kemp, who put fighting crime at the forefront of his reelection campaign last year.

The state Senate voted 30-20 to send the anti-gang measure to Kemp’s desk on the final day of the 2023 legislative session.

Senate Bill 44, which returned to the Senate after an amended version passed the House, 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.

“There’s no room for street gangs in Georgia,” said Sen. Bo Hatchett, a Republican from Cornelia. “This bill is going to help prosecutors across the state.”

The bill 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. Now Kemp and GOP lawmakers are pushing to lock away more criminals for longer stretches.

The House-added provisions would force judges to require a cash bond 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.

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

“The judge’s discretion to be not lenient, but humane, to take that away is not good policy,” said Sen. Josh McLaurin, a Democrat from Sandy Springs and an attorney.

Under Georgia’s existing 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.

The changes approved by lawmakers would reduce that discretion. 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 received 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.