Controversial legislation imposing mandatory minimum prison terms for gang recruitment in Georgia will take effect July 1.
Senate Bill 44 is one of dozens of bills the General Assembly passed this year that will become law with the start of a new fiscal year.
Passed by the legislature’s Republican majorities along party lines, the bill requires judges to impose prison sentences of at least five years on those convicted of recruiting gang members. It also mandates tougher penalties for recruiting to a gang anyone under age 17 or with a disability, requiring at least a 10-year sentence.
“Come after our children, and we will come after you,” Gov. Brian Kemp warned in January during his annual State of the State address to members of the Georgia House and Senate.
The Governor made Senate Bill 44 part of his agenda for this year’s legislative session and signed it during a ceremony in April.
“There’s no room for street gangs in Georgia,” Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, one of Kemp’s Senate floor leaders, said when the bill was debated on the Senate floor in March. “[Senate Bill 44] is going to help prosecutors across the state. It’s going to help children. It’s going to really provide serious penalties for someone that tries to recruit a child into a life of crime by asking them to join a street gang.”
When the bill reached the House, Republican leaders amended it to restrict judges’ abilities to allow suspects accused of certain crimes to be released without posting a bond if they have been convicted of bond jumping within the past five years or if a bench warrant for failure to appear in court has been issued within the past five years.
Judges also will have to consider the suspect’s criminal history before allowing no-cash bail.
Senate Democrats objected that the amendment broadened the bill beyond its original scope of cracking down on gang activity.
“Let’s say you miss court for some reason and there are plenty of reasons to miss court,” said Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs. “Now all of a sudden, the judge does not have discretion for five years to let you go on your own recognizance. They have to put a cash dollar value on your bail.”
Hatchett dismissed those concerns as unrealistic.
“If you do not show up for court and you have a bench warrant – let’s say you had work – and then you go back to court, you tell them, ‘Hey, I didn’t show up.’ Then, the warrant will be recalled,” he said. “Once the warrant’s recalled, the five-year clock no longer applies. That’s what it says in the bill.”
Not all – or even a majority – of the bills the General Assembly passes each year are along party lines. The following four measures that will take July 1 had bipartisan support:
— House Bill 31 ensures that the money that goes into the state’s Hazardous Waste Trust Fund is used to clean up hazardous waste sites and isn’t siphoned off for unrelated purposes.
— House Bill 383 increases penalties for criminal suspects charged with assaulting health-care workers or hospital peace officers on a hospital campus.
— Senate Bill 55, the Lemonade Stand bill, will allow Georgians under age 18 to sell non-consumable goods, pre-packaged food items and non-alcoholic beverages on private property without requiring a permit or license or paying a tax.
— Senate Bill 220 creates a program to fund preservation of agricultural properties from development.
Article written by Dave Williams, Bureau Chief, Capitol Beat News Service