ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp's administration is seeking to persuade lawmakers of the need to tighten Georgia's gang laws.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds, Attorney General Chris Carr and others told a House-Senate panel Jan. 27 that gangs are a serious problem needing further action.
GBI wants to strengthen a state law it already touts as the nation's strongest. Perhaps most controversially, GBI wants the power to begin investigating gang crimes without an invitation from local officials, as is needed now. Reynolds told The Associated Press that he anticipates "open discussions" with sheriffs and others who might be hesitant over that authority.
Reynolds said he also wants changes that would clarify that each separate act listed in the state's 2010 anti-gang law could be prosecuted as a separate offense, allowing prosecutors to load up charges with hefty potential prison sentences for gang members.
That law makes it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison for a series of offenses if someone is a member of a "criminal street gang," even if just painting graffiti.
Kemp and his officials have called for a gang database that investigators could use to share information. They've also proposed a public gang registry that would function like the current public sex offender registry, publicizing the names and residences of convicted offenders. Officials want to enshrine Georgia's current gang task force in law, and allow prosecutors to consolidate criminal cases across county lines, instead of prosecuting individual offenses separately in individual counties.
"We're so uniquely positioned in the bureau, in GBI, to reach across those jurisdictional boundaries," Reynolds said.
Kemp could unveil new legislation later this week after spending a significant portion of his State of the State speech on Jan. 16 arguing that gangs are "a statewide threat that undermines our safety and our future." He also wants to add money for GBI's gang task force in the state budget.
Some see Kemp's tough-on-crime message as a throwback to earlier Republican policies, going against a more recent trend led in Georgia by Gov. Nathan Deal to reduce harsh sentences. Others say the state should differentiate, pursuing lenient policies for non-violent criminals, but harsher sanctions for the worst offenders.
"It's my observation that the two approaches complement each other," Carr, a Republican, told lawmakers Monday, arguing that it's not a reversal of what Deal did.
Although Kemp administration officials also discuss prevention, some critics say he's too focused on jailing people.
"What Georgia should be doing is focusing on the societal barriers that lead young people to gang involvement, and invest the resources necessary to allow communities impacted by these issues to thrive," Marissa Dodson, public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights said in a statement. "Unfortunately, instead of proposing proven methods which reduce violence and increase opportunity, Governor Kemp has chosen to simply increase penalties – which are already harsh and ineffective – for people accused of gang involvement."
Rep. Carl Gilliard, a Garden City Democrat who chaired a study committee on youth and gangs over the summer, said he's willing to consider stronger criminal efforts. But he said that should be balanced with other measures.
"The whole focus has been prevention, prevention, prevention," Gilliard said Monday.
The Georgia Gang Investigators Association estimates that there are 71,000 gang members in Georgia, including 27,000 already in prison. Those estimates have prompted dispute, but Reynolds told lawmakers that they at least show the magnitude of the problem
Ray Ham of the association told lawmakers that combating the problem would require "some teeth to the law" and taking "the handcuffs off" law enforcement.
"Guns, gangs, drugs, it all goes together," Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee told lawmakers. "Drugs fuel it."