ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives passed legislation Monday imposing mandatory minimum prison terms for gang recruitment.
The bill, which originated in the state Senate, would require judges to impose prison sentences of at least five years on those convicted of recruiting gang members. It also would require tougher penalties for those who recruit someone under age 17 or someone with a disability to a gang, requiring at least a 10-year sentence.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has made cracking down on gangs an important part of his legislative agenda this year. The bill is one of a number of measures aimed at that goal.
“This sends a strong message: If you come into our state and are recruiting our children, then we will have severe punishment for you,” said Rep. Soo Hong, R-Lawrenceville, one of the governor’s floor leaders and the sponsor of the bill in the House.
The bill would also require judges to look at the history of people accused of serious crimes to see if they have previously jumped bail or failed to appear in court before allowing the accused an “unsecured judicial release.”
Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said that gang members in his district have started moving their operations across the border to South Carolina because of Georgia’s already-stiff gang penalties.
“I’m here to tell you from my own community: This stuff will and does work,” Fleming said.
However, Democrats opposed the measure, arguing that mandatory minimum sentences will not solve Georgia’s gang problems.
“This bill fails to implement evidence-based strategies actually proven to prevent children from being recruited into gangs and making us safer,” said Rep. Tanya Miller, D-Atlanta. “This bill will move our state backwards solely for the purpose of appearing to be tough on crime.”
Miller, a former prosecutor, also argued that the bill would violate the doctrine of separation of powers because it would limit judges’ flexibility in sentencing.
Other Democrats argued the bill would increase costs to taxpayers and undermine the legacy of former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who oversaw landmark criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the number of people incarcerated in Georgia.
“Mandatory minimums … fail to deter crime,” said Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville. “They disproportionately harm people of color and fail to promote public safety.”
The House passed the bill 99-74, primarily along party lines. Because the House amended the bill in committee, it now heads back to the Senate.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.