ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia senators advanced a bill Monday that would add 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.
Senate Bill 44, which is being pushed by Gov. Brian Kemp as part of his continued focus on fighting gangs, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 6-3 party-line vote, with Republicans voting for it. It moves next to the full Senate for more debate.
The bill cuts against a decade of state lawmakers reducing mandatory sentences or refusing to add new ones, with those seeking to reduce long prison sentences arguing judges should have discretion.
Now Kemp and other Republicans who campaigned last year on fighting crime say more criminals must be locked away for long stretches.
“More must be done to keep our children away from a life of crime and keep our communities safe," said Sen. Bo Hatchett, a Cornelia Republican who introduced the bill as one of Kemp's floor leaders.
The measure would require that anyone convicted under Georgia's sweeping anti-gang law serve at least five years in state prison on top of any other sentence, restricting judges' ability to reduce sentences and giving prosecutors an unusual right to appeal lesser sentences.
The bill would also impose a mandatory 10 additional years, with no possibility of probation or parole, for anyone convicted of recruiting a minor into a gang.
“In communities across our state, gangs are actively recruiting children as young as elementary school students into a life of crime," Kemp said in his State of the State speech last month. "They are targeting the most innocent among us, pulling them down a dark path that too often leads to either a prison cell or the cemetery.”
There's already an enhancement of five to 20 years for gang convictions in Georgia, but judges can give probation instead of prison. Now, to go below the five-year minimum, a prosecutor could seek leniency in cases where a defendant aids an investigation.
“You want out from under these mandatory minimums, then you help the DA,” said John Melvin, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Judges could also order less prison time if they list specific findings, such as that a defendant didn't have a gun, is not a gang leader, has no prior felony conviction or didn't cause death or injury. Prosecutors would get a new right to appeal such leniency, intended as a check on judges who might be seen as soft on crime.
Nyonnohweah Seekie, a defense lawyer from Macon, said that with the changes, “the judge's hands would be tied.”
Supporters 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 Winne, an assistant district attorney who prosecutes crime in the Coweta Circuit southwest of Atlanta. “A lot of this is about incapacitation.”
But opponents said Georgia's laws already carry harsh penalties and there's no proof criminals will be deterred.
“High incarceration rates are not a rational response to high crime rates," said Mazie Lynn Guertin, executive director of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "But they are a politically expedient response to fear.”
Opponents also warned that the 10-year penalty for recruitment would end up being used against 17- and 18-year-olds who are recruiting younger teens.
“This is 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 one of those people is under 25 years old," Guertin said, adding, "We’re going to think of them as predators, but really they’re just children themselves.”
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