Latest news straight to you
Get our free weekly newsletter on important housing and democracy news every Thursday afternoon.
Following newly re-elected Gov. Brian Kemp’s lead, Republican lawmakers who control the state Legislature are pushing several “tough-on-crime” bills this session, eroding the eight-year legacy of criminal justice reform from Kemp’s Republican predecessor Nathan Deal.
“We will leverage state resources to support law enforcement, toughen penalties for criminals, crack down on human trafficking, and use every tool at our disposal to keep your family safe,” Kemp said after being sworn in for his second term last month.
A handful of bills introduced in the 2023 Georgia General Assembly propose to increase prison sentences for various felonies, punish elected prosecutors for declining to bring charges for misdemeanors, and more.
Here is an overview of these GOP-sponsored bills:
Gang-related crime crackdown
The state Senate narrowly voted 31-22 in favor of Senate Bill 44 this week, largely along party lines. The measure, which moves to the House following Crossover Day on March 6, doles out extra punishment for anyone convicted of a gang-related crime, including those who recruited minors into a gang.
A sentencing enhancement of five to 20 years for gang convictions already exists in Georgia, but judges can give probation instead of prison. The “Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act,” introduced by Kemp’s Senate floor leader, Bo Hatchett, would add a mandatory five years to prison sentences for anyone convicted of a gang-related crime and 10 years for those convicted of recruiting minors into a gang.
“This bill is one piece of the overall approach to reaffirm that Georgia will not tolerate gang activity or recruitment,” said Lt. Governor Burt Jones in a press release.
The bill would allow prosecutors and judges to consider a lower sentence in certain circumstances, including situations in which the defendant didn’t have a gun, has no prior felony conviction, or renders “substantial assistance” in the identification, arrest, or conviction of other gang members.
Some Democrats say Georgia’s sentencing laws are harsh enough already. “What are we trying to address?” asked Sen. Derek Mallow, a Democrat from Savannah, during floor debate. “Is it leniency in sentencing? I don’t think that’s a major problem here in Georgia.”
A felony to pimp or pay for sex
Senate Bill 36 is another bill that aims to increase prison sentences. If passed, it would make it a felony for anyone to pay for sex or facilitate prostitution by pimping.
Currently, a first offense of pimping or paying for sex, which is legally called “pandering,” is a misdemeanor under Georgia law, requiring at least 72 hours in jail. This bill would change that to a felony and impose punishment for a first conviction of one to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. A second or subsequent violation would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence of one year, unless a prosecuting attorney and defendant reached an agreement.
The Senate voted 33-16 to approve the bill and it will move to the House, over Democrats’ objections that mandatory minimum sentences don’t deter crime.
Reclassify dogfighting as organized crime
People convicted of dogfighting would get stiffer penalties if Senate Bill 68 moves forward. Authored by state Sen. Rick Williams (R-Milledgeville), the bill would classify dogfighting, currently a felony, as a racketeering activity under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute. Racketeering, which carries stiffer penalties, is defined as a type of organized crime in which the perpetrators set up an illegal coordinated scheme or operation (a “racket”) for profit.
Currently, dogfighting carries a one to five year prison sentence for a first offense and one to ten years for subsequent convictions. Applying the state RICO law would escalate that to five to 20 years in prison.
The bill passed the Senate Public Safety Committee on a 5-3 vote, approved by all its Republican members.
Taking power away from DAs
Elected prosecutors could face discipline, removals or easier voter recalls under two Republican-introduced bills.
House Bill 231 would establish a state Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission to investigate complaints of misconduct by district attorneys and solicitors general and recommend punishments—including removal—to the Georgia Supreme Court. Likewise, House Bill 229 would make it easier to recall a district attorney by alleging they are underprosecuting cases. It adds language to update a district attorney’s defined duties, saying they must “review every individual case for which probable cause for prosecution exists, and make a prosecutorial decision available under the law.” It adds that refusing to do so would violate a district attorney’s oath of office.
Neither bill had been voted on as of Wednesday.
New focus on auto crime
House Bill 268 addresses a rise in motor vehicle crime, including carjackings, thefts and break ins. One 2022 report estimated that car-related crimes made up half of Atlanta’s total crime reports for Zone 5, encompassing Midtown and Downtown, according to Atlanta Police Department statistics.
Among other provisions, the bill would establish a grant program to fund vehicle-related crimefighting and establish the Georgia Motor Vehicle Crime Prevention Advisory Board.
This bill has been read twice in committees, but hasn’t yet been voted on in the Georgia House.
More power for Georgia Ports Authority cops
By a bipartisan vote of 164-2, the Georgia House approved House Bill 35, which would expand the arrest powers of Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) security guards and police. Currently, they have the power to make arrests for traffic offenses and accidents on Ports Authority property, and the bill would expand that to incidents within a mile of its property.
WANT TO HAVE A VOICE ON THESE PROPOSED CRIME LAWS?
- Click here to find out the names of your state representative and senator.
- Click here for their phone numbers and emails.
Note from the editor: Have questions about how the Georgia General Assembly operates? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll get you an answer.