Georgia Senate backs Kemp’s push for tougher gang sentences

ATLANTA (AP) – Members of the Georgia House on Monday dismissed objections that tougher anti-gang conviction laws would keep too many young people in prison for long periods of time and passed a law backed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp that would crack down on convicts Recruit minors into a gang.

“Gangs need to recruit to survive, and we’re sending a strong message with this bill that if you come into our state and recruit our children, we will punish you severely,” said Lawrenceville Republican Soo Hong, who bills for Kemp as leader wears.

Senate Bill 44 passed by a 99-74 vote and is returning to the Senate for further debate as the House of Representatives amended it to include a heavily scaled-down version of tougher cash bail provisions that senators are seeking.

The bill reverses a trend that has seen Georgia lawmakers reduce penalties or refuse to add new ones. Now, Kemp and other Republicans who campaigned to fight crime last year say more criminals need to be locked up for long distances.

Opponents say there is no evidence longer prison sentences work. They also warn that the law could be used against juveniles charged as adults or older teenagers who recruit their younger siblings and friends into a gang.

“Our laws must be flexible enough, they must be nimble enough so that we can deal with the most violent among us and restore and rehabilitate those we can,” said Tanya Miller, an Atlanta Democrat and former state attorney. “This law deprives our criminal justice system of that carefully crafted balance.”

Today, people convicted of criminal gang activity under Georgia’s far-reaching anti-gang law can be sentenced to an additional five to 20 years in prison, but a judge has the power to waive additional prison terms. Under the new measure, judges’ ability to waive additional prison terms would be limited. Judges could order a reduction in prison terms if they list certain determinations, including that a defendant did not have a weapon, is not a gang leader, has no prior conviction for a criminal offense, or did not cause death or injury.

Penalties for recruiting minors into gangs would be much harsher. Judges would have to sentence these individuals to at least 10 years of actual prison time unless a prosecutor asked the court to reduce the sentence because a defendant had provided significant assistance against other criminals.

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

“What this is going to do is those who are recruiting our youth, ages 17 and younger, are going to take them off the streets for 10 or 15 years,” said House Noncivilian Judiciary Committee Chairman Tyler Paul Smith, a Bremen Republicans.

Democrats said lengthy prison sentences are expensive for taxpayers, even though there’s little evidence they deter someone from committing a crime.

“Incarceration for the sake of incarceration makes no sense,” said Rep. Shea Roberts, an Atlanta Democrat. “Taxpayers will bear these costs of this increasing prison population.”

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

“If you don’t think increasing penalties will have any effect, then I’ve probably lost you,” said Rob Leverett, an Elberton Republican. “But I believe this is part of a sound strategy to address this issue.

The House version of the bill also includes some changes related to bail eligibility, which Hong characterizes as transposing current practice into law. It would state that individuals could not be released from prison prior to the trial without providing cash or property if they had been sentenced to bail within the previous five years or if a warrant had been issued for a person’s failure to appear in court for an offense other than a traffic offense in the last five years.

It also requires that a judge consider a person’s criminal record before setting bail.

But that’s much less severe than Senate Bill 63, which adds 53 more offenses to a list of offenses requiring cash bail, including passing a worthless check or misdemeanors like reckless driving or fighting in a public place. This proposal states that no one convicted of three prior felonies, or convicted of one felony within the past seven years, can be released from prison without posting cash or bail. And it says no one can automatically leave prison without posting bail unless they have appeared before a judge.


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