Georgia GOP clampdown on street gangs gets Legislature OK

Georgia State Capitol on mostly sunny day

by Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

March 30, 2023

During the marathon final day of the 2023 Georgia legislative session, lawmakers late Wednesday sent the governor approved  highly divisive law-and-order bill that stiffen prison sentences for street gang offenses and would also lead to more criminal charges requiring accused offenders to post bond to get out of jail.

With the backing of the Republican-majority House and Senate chambers, Gov. Brian Kemp’s priority street gang Senate Bill 44 now awaits his signature. It was the 2023 session’s high-profile criminal justice legislation as Republican leaders promised tougher criminal penalties to crackdown on crime across metro Atlanta and the rest of the state. Democratic lawmakers warned that the governor’s street gang legislation would further undermine recent progress made in criminal justice reform that emphasize rehabilitation rather than harsh jail and prison sentences.

The state’s attempt to rein in violence imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for street gang offenses and a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years for recruiting minors. People convicted under mandatory sentencing will serve the full length incarcerated without any chance of a suspended sentence or conversion to probation.

The governor’s floor leader Sen. Bo Hatchett said the bill sends a signal that street gangs and members who recruit minors will get harsher punishment in the judicial system.

“There’s no room for street gangs in Georgia,” the Cornelia Republican said. 

The final version of the House substitute bill passed Wednesday prevents a judge from allowing someone to be released from jail on a signature bond promising to appear in court. The House also added a provision that a judge must consider a person’s criminal history prior to allowing them to be released from custody following an arrest without having to post bail or bond.

Sen. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, said the bill would have serious unintended consequences by requiring cash bail for crimes not even related to gang crimes.

According to McLaurin, the bill now means that if someone is pulled over for a broken tail light, they will be arrested if they have a prior charge of failure to appear in court on their record within the last five years.

“The whole point of the bill before you and bills that have preceding it is to make it more difficult for judges who are elected officials to issue bond decisions that look lenient,” McLaurin said. “So even if the judge is looking at a pathetic case in front of them, somebody who really is on the line with their work, with their employment situation, really struggles finding transportation to get to get to court, to get to work, that  judge no longer has discretion to show mercy, to show compassion.”

According to Hatchett, the bill gives a judge the chance to rescind a bench warrant that has been issued for missing court, which will stop the five-year clock that could result in a future arrest.

No cash bail reform takes hit

House lawmakers also voted 95-81 session in favor of Cataula Republican Sen. Randy Robertson’s Senate Bill 63, but the clock ran out  without the Senate casting the deciding vote on a bill that added 30 criminal charges to the list of offenses that require a person arrested to put up a cash bail or property as collateral in order to be released from jail.

Robertson’s bill could return for the 2024 session. He has said the bill would further encourage people to obey the law while waiting for their case to be resolved since they are required to put up money or property as collateral to avoid incarceration.

The new charges that would require more than a signature bond range from misdemeanor marijuana possession to obstruction of a law enforcement officer to credit card fraud. 

Theft by taking, reckless driving and criminal trespass would require cash bail if it is the person’s second or subsequent offense if the bill becomes law.

Many criminal justice reform advocates oppose the bill because it would force many people to spend more time in prison for nonviolent offenses if they lack the money to buy their way out.

Those extra days behind bars could be the difference between remaining employed and being a productive member of society, some lawmakers argued.

Lithonia Democratic Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick criticized limiting a judge’s discretion to consider each case’s circumstances.

“Why do we have elected officials if all we’re going to do is to continue to tell them how to do their jobs,” she said.

Rep. Teri Anulewicz complained many Republican lawmakers will undo reforms made to cash bail and diversion programs like accountability courts led by former GOP Gov. Nathan Deal.

“SB (63) is just one attempt to walk back Gov. Deal’s reforms, to walk back those reforms that had in many cases unanimous agreement in this chamber,” the Smyrna Democrat said. “It’s just one more way to hack away at Gov. Deal’s legacy.”

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