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Governor’s gang legislation divides Georgia House

Maggie Lee
Interior of the Georgia House of Representatives
Interior of the Georgia House of Representatives by Kelly Jordan

By Maggie Lee

A bill that Gov. Brian Kemp offered as part of his campaign promise to fight gangs has passed the Georgia House — with less than an hour before a legislative deadline and not a single Democratic vote.

The bill adds offenses to the list of criminal gang activity like human trafficking and aggravated child molestation. But overall, critics fear the law defines “gangs” too broadly and will lead to long, unfair sentences and other injustices.

State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, sponsor of House Bill 994 and one of Kemp’s official liaisons in the House, said the legal changes in the bill amount to an update of the state’s existing criminal street gang law.

“We cannot put our heads in the sand on violent criminal street gangs,” Reeves said on the House floor Thursday, less than an hour before midnight. “They are tearing apart our communities, there are communities that live in fear.”

Democrats as a caucus united against the bill.

The caucus is against gang activity of course, said state Rep. William Boddie, an East Point Democrat and Minority Whip.

But he said the country has already tried tough-on-crime policies that failed, like two-strike laws, military-style bootcamps for youthful offenders and federal sentencing guidelines.

“How about let’s give the locals adequate resources to deal with gangs?” Boddie said.

He mentioned resources for district attorneys and police. But he also called for resources for public defenders and for communities, so that those communities can attack social and economic disadvantages.

“When you have a child that goes to school and they’re hungry, when you have a child that goes to school and they have dirty clothes, they are more influenced by the gangs,” he said.

Reeves pushed back against charges that the bill goes against the spirit of former Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice policies, which emphasized rehabilitation, treatment and diversion for nonviolent offenders. Reeves said he voted for all those policies during his time in the legislature and they were a game-changer for people guilty of nonviolent crimes.

“But I challenge you to go look back and tell me where in criminal justice reform we offered the grace and mercy and protection to violent crime that we offered to nonviolent crime,” Reeves said.

By the time 994 got to the House floor, it had lost several of its original features to heavy criticism.

As first written, the bill would have put more teens straight into adult court, and would have made gang motivations one of the things that can contribute to a death sentence for murder.

Prosecutors said during legislative hearings that they already have charges with which to go after gangs.

The House passed the new version 93-65. The representatives were meeting late to pass bills ahead of a deadline to get them to the Senate with enough time for a chance at passage in the other chamber.

But it’s unknown when a Senate committee might take up HB 994. After a day of formalities on Friday, the state House and Senate will be suspended indefinitely due to coronavirus.

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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