Georgia GOP to Crack Down on Gangs, Crime

( – Georgia lawmakers are reversing course on a recent historical trend to go lighter on crime by debating legislation that would stiffen criminal penalties, especially for gangs that recruit young people.

Senate Bill 44 passed but now goes back for more Senate debate after the House amended the bill to neuter the original bill’s stricter policies on cash bail. Democratic critics don’t like the bill because, they claim, it would funnel more minors into prisons.

They claim there is no evidence that tougher sentencing laws “work” – that is, reduce recidivism and encourage reintegration after release – and they worry that stiffer penalties will be used to try minors as adults.

Soo Hong, a Georgia Republican (but not a lawmaker) who is an ally of Republican Governor Brian Kemp, said gangs have to recruit in order to keep their numbers up. Senate bill 44 sends a message to gangs that if they come to Georgia and recruit children, the law has a “severe punishment” for them, Hong said.

Democrat Tanya Miller of Atlanta is a former prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney. She said Georgia needs more flexible laws, not stricter mandatory sentences. “This bill robs our criminal justice system of this carefully crafted balance,” she said.

Under current Georgia law, those convicted of gang activity can face an additional five to 20 years of prison time, but judges have the discretion to waive those extra penalties if they see fit. If Senate Bill 44 passes, judges would have less leeway to reduce sentences. The bill would allow judges to order shorter prison sentences if the court finds that a defendant did not have a gun, was not a gang leader, has no prior felony convictions, and didn’t cause death or injury when committing the crime.

The bill under debate would significantly increase punishment for those who recruit minors into gangs. It would require judges to sentence such defendants to at least 10 years of prison time, barring a request from a prosecutor to reduce that if the defendant gave “substantial assistance” against other criminals.

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