ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia state senators introduced a bill Monday that would add a mandatory five years in prison to anyone convicted of a gang crime and 10 years to those convicted of recruiting minors into gangs.
Senate Bill 44, which is being pushed by Gov. Brian Kemp as part of his continued focus on gangs, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote of 6-3, with Republicans voting for it. It moves to the full Senate for further debate.
The bill caps a decade of state lawmakers reducing mandatory sentences or refusing to add new ones, while those seeking to reduce long prison terms have argued that judges should have discretion.
Now Kemp and other Republicans who last year he conducted a campaign against crime say that more criminals should be locked up for long periods.
“More needs to be done to keep our kids out of a life of crime and keep our communities safe,” said Sen. Beau Hatchett, R-Cornelia, who introduced the bill as one of Kemp’s leaders.
The measure would require anyone convicted under Georgia’s sweeping anti-gang law to serve at least five years in state prison in addition to any other sentence, limiting the ability of judges to commute sentences and giving prosecutors the unusual right to appeal lesser sentences .
The bill also mandates 10 additional years without the possibility of probation or parole for those convicted of recruiting minors into gangs.
“In communities across our state, gangs are actively recruiting children from elementary school to a life of crime,” Kemp said in his On the state of the state speech last month. “They target the most innocent among us, dragging them down a dark path that too often leads to either a prison cell or a graveyard.”
Georgia already has a 5- to 20-year sentence extension for gang convictions, but judges can give probation instead of prison. Now, to drop to the five-year minimum, prosecutors can seek leniency in cases where the accused helps the investigation.
“You want to go below those mandatory minimums, then you’re helping the prosecution,” said John Melvin, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Judges can also order less prison time if they list specific findings, such as that the defendant did not have a weapon, was not a gang leader, had no prior felony convictions, or caused the death or bodily harm. Prosecutors will have a new right to appeal such leniency, designed to vet judges who may be seen as soft on crime.
Nyonnohweah Seekie, a Macon attorney, said the judge’s “hands will be tied” with the changes.
Proponents testified Monday that sending gang members to prison for longer terms would make communities safer.
“Incarcerating gang members does reduce violent gang crime,” said Jack Winn, an assistant district attorney who prosecutes crimes in Coweta County, southwest of Atlanta. “A lot of it has to do with incompetence.”
But opponents said that Georgia’s laws already provide for harsh punishments and there is no evidence that criminals will be deterred.
“High incarceration rates are not a rational response to high crime rates,” said Maisie Lynn Guertin, executive director of the Georgia Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “But they are a politically expedient response to fear.”
Opponents also warned that the 10-year recruitment penalty would eventually be used against 17- and 18-year-olds who recruit young teenagers.
“It’s going to be young people recruiting young people, and we’re going to talk about it like it’s a bunch of adults behaving badly, but every single one of these people is under 25,” Gerten said, adding, “We I’ll think of them as predators, but in reality they are just children themselves.’