ATLANTA - Georgia senators are backing Gov. Brian Kemp’s push for long prison sentences for gang members and even longer sentences for anyone convicted of recruiting minors into a gang.
The Senate voted 31-22 for Senate Bill 44 on Monday, mostly along party lines. The measure, which moves to the House for more debate, 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.
The bill reverses a trend of Georgia lawmakers reducing mandatory sentences or refusing to add new ones. Now Kemp and other Republicans who campaigned last year on fighting crime say more criminals must be locked away for long stretches.
"There’s no room for gangs in Georgia, and you don’t need to come after our children," said Sen. Bo Hatchett, a Cornelia Republican who is a Kemp floor leader.
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.
There’s already an enhancement of five to 20 years for gang convictions in Georgia, but judges can give probation instead of prison. Under the new bill, to go below the five-year minimum, a prosecutor could seek leniency in cases where a defendant aids an investigation.
Judges could order less prison time if they list specific findings, including 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.
Sen. Harold Jones II, an Augusta Democrat who opposed the measure, said many minor crimes, including misdemeanor assault and simple drug possession, can be crimes that qualify for being prosecuted as part of a gang under Georgia law.
"We may be picking up people within the serious offense who don’t need to be picked up," Jones said.
But opponents said Georgia’s laws already carry harsh penalties and there’s no proof criminals will be deterred.
"What are we trying to address?" asked Sen. Derek Mallow, a Savannah Democrat. "Is it leniency in sentencing? I don’t think that’s a major problem here in Georgia. And increasing penalties, if that was the absolute to deterring crime, we shouldn’t have any crime."
Opponents also warned that the 10-year penalty for recruitment would end up being used against victims of child sex trafficking who recruit other children. Hatchett, though, said that prosecutors don’t seek to prosecute sex trafficking victims. Senators rejected an amendment to specifically exclude them from the bill on a 28-25 vote.
"The reason we do mandatory minimums, if we ever do them, is because we’re confident that every single member without exception of that class deserves at least that penalty," said Sen. Josh McLaurin, an Atlanta Democrat. "I’m telling you that child sex trafficking victims in Georgia, the ones caught up in this mess, do not qualify for them."