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Kemp says his anti-gang push builds on Deal's work while others say it goes against it
01162020 Kemp
Gov. Brian Kemp, center, is flanked by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, right, and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan as he speaks Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, during the State of the State address before a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — As part of his anti-gang push, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Jan. 30 said he wants prosecutors to be able to charge crimes across multiple counties and to be able to seek the death penalty for murders committed during gang activity.

“Criminal street gangs are plaguing our communities with violence, drugs, weapons and fear,” Kemp told reporters, with more than two dozen lawmakers standing behind him. “They're responsible for the most violent crime in our state.”

Some see Kemp's tough-on-crime message as a throwback to earlier Republican policies that would jail more people, going against a more recent trend in Georgia by Gov. Nathan Deal to reduce harsh sentences.

Ashleigh Merchant of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers questioned how toughening laws would work if Georgia already has some of the nation's toughest gang laws but is in a gang “crisis.”

“Funding more gang prosecution and gang punishments is not working,” she wrote in a statement. “Perhaps we should instead fund prevention methods such as education, juvenile justice programs, community outreach programs, and accountability courts.”

Kemp, though, described his efforts as building on Deal's reforms. Supporters of his plan have said the state should differentiate, pursuing lenient policies for non-violent criminals, but harsher sanctions for the worst offenders.

Some of moves were telegraphed well in advance by earlier requests to lawmakers. For example, Kemp wants to clarify that each separate act listed in the state's 2010 anti-gang law could be prosecuted as a separate offense, allowing judges to give hefty prison sentences for gang members. Each additional charge can bring three to 15 more years in prison.

Allowing prosecutors in one county to charge crimes in other counties is also something the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had asked for earlier. Merchant said she feared that could lead to prosecutors seeking to bring cases in “tough-on-crime” counties.

Murders committed during gang activity would be added to the list of other crimes tied to a murder that make a convicted killer eligible for execution, such as rape, armed robbery, kidnapping, murder-for-hire or killing a law enforcement officer.

One bill would also expand the state's power to seize property and put people who commit sex crimes as part of gang activity onto Georgia's sexual offender registry.

A second bill would create a legal division at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and allow those GBI lawyers to serve as special prosecutors for gang crimes when requested. Currently, the GBI only investigates crimes. Kemp said he saw no reason to fear prosecutors working for an investigative agency instead of having independence, and said having them in an agency under his control underlined gang prosecutions as one of his priorities.

But Merchant questions that move.

“Without independence from the prosecution, the credibility and public trust of the GBI to remain neutral will be diminished,” she said.

Kemp's proposals would not give the GBI the power to begin investigating gang crimes without an invitation from local officials, as is needed now. GBI Director Vic Reynolds on Wednesday said he favors such power.

The second bill would also extend the power of campus police officers 880 yards beyond the boundaries of school property, a move the Kemp administration says would allow schools including Georgia State University and Georgia Tech do more to combat crime at the edges of their campuses.

In addition to the new laws, Kemp wants to increase GBI spending by more than $1 million to add seven new employees to the gang task force and to create a gang database that investigators could use to share information.

Kemp spent 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.”