Opinion: In an era of declining violence, Brian Kemp declares a gang crisis

News and analysis from the AJC's political team
A sampling of items seized Tuesday during two Gwinnett County gang stash houses. (credit: Georgia Bureau of Investigation)

A sampling of items seized Tuesday during two Gwinnett County gang stash houses. (credit: Georgia Bureau of Investigation)

Gov. Brian Kemp has begun the 2020 session of the Legislature by cutting against the grain on two important issues.

You could also say he is sailing against the wind, but our governor made his bones as a contractor and prefers metaphors built with 2x4s.

Georgia’s unemployment rate hit 3.3% late last year, the lowest since the federal government started keeping records in 1976. Job growth is strong. “Job creators have Georgia on their minds,” Kemp bragged only last month.

And yet the governor has ordered hundreds of millions of dollars in austerity cuts over the next 18 months, the consequences of which we will begin to see next week, when hearings on the state’s $28 billion budget begin.

In his annual State of the State address on Thursday, Kemp also declared gang violence to be a crisis in the state, even as U.S. Justice Department figures show that in 2018, violent crime in Georgia was down 13% from 2011 — and in fact has been in sharp decline since the 1990s.

“Criminal street gangs continue to grow in size and scope, impacting every county in every part of our state. These organized crime units are flooding our streets with weapons, drugs, violence, and fear,” Kemp said. “They are ripping apart the fabric of our communities. They are eroding the foundations of our families.”

Shortly afterwards, Kemp released a proposed budget that includes nearly $2 million for seven new positions in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Gang Task Force, and resources to set up a statewide gang database.

The governor has proposed that a similar amount, more than $2 million, be trimmed from the state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which runs the state’s new accountability courts — a prime feature of the criminal justice reform wrought by Gov. Nathan Deal.

Accountability courts allow judges to enroll offenders in tailored programs that, if they meet a series of goals – like holding a steady job, or remaining drug-free, allows them to escape prison.

On Thursday, Democrats who worked with Deal to implement the policy expressed worry that the threatened cuts mark the end of Republican interest in criminal justice reform — and a return to a traditional, tough-on-crime attitude.

Deal himself had no complaint on Thursday. He and his wife Sandra watched from the gallery as Kemp deliver his mid-morning address in the House chamber of the state Capitol. Afterwards, the former governor said his successor had outlined a “wide range of things all of us can agree on.”

But other Republicans are concerned. Jason Pye is a former Georgia operative who is now vice-president of governmental affairs at FreedomWorks, a conservative and libertarian advocacy group based in Washington D.C. He still commutes to Georgia on weekends.

FreedomWorks has been instrumental in persuading conservative Republicans to work with Democrats on reducing the U.S. prison population – one of the highest in the world.

“It’s really frustrating to see the reforms that corresponded to a subsequent decline in violent crime in Georgia aren’t being recognized by this governor as the success that they are,” said Pye, who has often pointed to his home state as a model. “This is one area of public safety that should be funded specifically because it enhances public safety. I’m all for spending cuts. Spending should be cut, yes. Absolutely. But not here.”

I asked Pye if he agreed with Kemp’s use of the word “crisis.” He thought for a beat. “I’m not going to say that there’s not a gang crisis. But if there is, it’s not borne out in the crime statistics. Violent crime has declined substantially since 1993,” he said.

Crime is always a touchy issue in politics. Kemp and state law enforcement officials claim that there are 71,000 gang members and associates in Georgia. I have noted elsewhere that this is a rather spongy number in need of justification.

(Remember that, only a few months ago, state officials claimed Georgia's film and TV tax credits were generating 92,000 jobs a year. A state audit recently put the number at fewer than 10,000. A new Georgia Tech study puts the number at 51,000.)

A problem can be serious without qualifying as a crisis. But he who controls the statistics also controls the discussion.

“It may depend on the individual community as to whether it’s a crisis or not. Any violent crime is always an issue. But here’s the thing – we already have the toughest gang legislation in the nation,” said state Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, a former Richmond County solicitor general.

Jones is worried about a climate of “hysteria” building in the state Capitol. “It sounds like were going more toward regression as far as criminal justice reform is concerned. That’s very concerning. Georgia was the model. Now, all of a sudden, we’re going backwards – to prosecution only, which has been proven not to work,” Jones said.

Jones was standing next to state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, another attorney. “The one thing that’s actually worked in this state, that we can all agree on, are these accountability courts,” she said. “And then what we see in the budget is that we’re actually cutting that. That makes no sense to me.”

Both lawmakers said they didn't know what new gang legislation Kemp might have in mind. He wasn't specific in his speech. But video of a late summer meeting of a House study committee on gang and youth violence provides some clues.

One of the speakers was John Melvin, chief of staff to GBI Director Vic Reynolds. Melvin spoke of going after gangs throughout Georgia “with a vengeance and vehemence” the state hasn’t seen before – just as the federal government pursues terrorists.

In addition to a database on gang activity that would be accessible to law enforcement across the state, Melvin said the GBI wants a gang member registry, which would log the locations of convicted gang members not in custody.

“If we have a sex offender registry, so that when I move into a subdivision, I can say how many sex offenders are living in my subdivision, it just makes sense that if we could have a gang registry, I could move into a subdivision and say how bad is this subdivision infiltrated with gang members,” Melvin said.

Ex-offenders could be purged from the list after walking the straight and narrow for a given period.

More specifically, the GBI wants some gang statutes rewritten to allow more violators to be tried as adults rather than juveniles. The agency wants legislation to give prosecutors more leeway in selecting the court jurisdictions where accused gang member would be tried.

But most importantly, the GBI wants “original jurisdiction” in gang violence cases – which would allow the state agency to prosecute cases throughout the state. Without waiting for an invitation from locals, as is now the case.

Given the influence of Georgia sheriffs and district attorneys in the state Capitol, that last one would be a very heavy lift. But such things are always much more possible in times of crisis.