Kemp’s anti-gang bill amended after swell of opposition

When Gov. Brian Kemp’s anti-gang bill dropped last week, criminal justice reform advocates were stunned.

As initially written, HB 994 would’ve drastically increased the number of crimes for which juveniles between the ages of 13 and 17 would be charged as adults, if the offenses were gang related. Groups including the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights urged residents to express alarm to lawmakers about a bill that “disregards science about brain development” in children and makes Georgia’s already “harsh” gang legislation “worse.” DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, whose office prosecutes gangs every day, went to a House committee hearing to express her concern with the bill.

By Monday afternoon, the administration had changed the bill to require prosecutors to ask juvenile judges to move gang-tied cases in order to transfer alleged gang members to the adult system. Also added to the bill was a mandate for the Department of Juvenile Justice to put convicted juvenile gang members through an “evidence-based” gang rehabilitation program. But opposition to the legislation remains and the cold reception illustrates a key problem Kemp faces in his push against gangs: those same vocal groups who praised former Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice overhauls are just as willing to lambaste Kemp as he proposes “tough-on-crime” legislation.

Rep. Bert Reeves, Kemp’s House floor leader, said he understands the need to balance fair treatment of minors in court as well as tackle gang issues.

“There’s a lot of merit in these issues all the way around,” he said in an interview Wednesday. At the same time, Reeves is an attorney who has prosecuted gangs and represented juvenile gang members. He remains skeptical that the juvenile system is always the right place for young gang members. “(Gangs) recruit younger, juvenile members, and oftentimes it’s those who are on the front lines committing the violent acts.”

The current version of the bill, which hasn’t come up for a vote in the House yet, would let prosecutors attack gangs in a variety of ways. The bill would add new crimes, which are often attributed to gangs, to the list that lands a person on the sex offender registry: burglary if the intent is to commit a sexual offense; keeping a place of prostitution; pimping; pandering; and any gang crime that involves a sex offense or an attempt to commit a sex offense. The convictions would have to be felonies to land the person on the registry.

HB 994 would also would clear the way for prosecutors to seek civil asset forfeiture orders on people convicted of criminal gang activity.

Gone from the current version of the bill is Kemp's proposal to make gang-related murders eligible for the death penalty, which had also stirred criticism from the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. As it stands now, gang motivations aren't one of the factors that could make a murder eligible for death. It was the death penalty portion which was apparently part of why Kemp said in January the bill would be named the Nicholas Sheffey Act. Nicholas was an 11-year-old Chamble drive-by victim whose mother was upset the killer didn't get the death penalty for the murder. Cody Bauer, 21, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, plus an extra life sentence and 675 years.

Reeves said he may file a different bill to address the death penalty issue.

In a statement released after the changes to the bill, Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said the governor’s “top priority is keeping Georgia families safe.”

“Law enforcement agencies across our state consistently report gang violence and criminal gang activity as the biggest challenge they face on a daily basis,” the statement said. “HB 994 gives prosecutors and public safety officials more tools in their tool belt to stop these criminals from terrorizing innocent Georgians.”

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Kemp has repeatedly said all of Georgia is “under siege” from gangs, a claim that has won him support from many law enforcement officials but also stirred criticism who say he is exaggerating the problem. Statistics are hard to come by on the true nature of Georgia’s gang issue, but skeptics of Kemp’s rhetoric often point out that federal data shows violent crime is down 13 percent since 2011 in the state.

All the same, Kemp administration has orchestrated a statewide push to prosecute more alleged gang members and, through a database, track alleged gang members. In a January news conference, Kemp said new legislation was also necessary to help law enforcement and prosecutors better attack gangs.

DeKalb’s district attorney said Georgia’s current gang laws already work.

“I do not think this bill is necessary,” Boston said in an interview Wednesday. “I am very concerned about moving juveniles out of the juvenile system into the adult criminal system. The resources and the things we’re doing in the juvenile system are dedicated to the rehabilitation and turn around. The adult system just isn’t.”

Like other critics of the bill, she is at least happy that it would have the Department of Juvenile Justice create an a program to help juvenile gang members reform.

"I would love that to be our focus," she said. "Right now the headlines (from the Kemp administration) are: 'We're cracking down, we're getting tough on criminal street gangs.' I would love the headline to be: 'We are investing massive resources to prevent the recruitment of our children into these gangs.'"

Jimmy Callaway, president of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association, said Kemp has been a strong supporter of everything the organization does — including efforts to prevent young people from joining gangs. “We do social work. We do go to churches. We go to schools. We wholeheartedly support intervention,” Callaway said. “His support definitely is there.”

But Callaway is also thankful for the governor’s efforts to prosecute more gang members who are committing crimes in Georgia. “What I hear from citizens all over the state of Georgia is they want safety. They don’t want to be afraid of walking down the street because of a drive-by.”

Marissa Dodson, the Southern Center for Human Rights’ public policy director, said the current version of the gang bill remains “punitive” and “unnecessary.”

A better approach to stopping gangs would be helping sway young people from ever joining. She said the Southern Center supports another pending bill, sponsored by Rep. Carl Gilliard, a Savannah area Democrat: HB 883, which would create a task force to develop a statewide plan for schools, community organizations and social service agencies to work together to sway young people from gangs.

Hall said the governor’s office had no comment on Gilliard’s bill because staff hasn’t yet reviewed it.

But Hall indicated that Kemp knows arrests aren’t the only ways to address gangs, “which is why Governor Kemp is also leading to make historic investments in public education, spur economic development and job growth in every corner of our state, and improve access to affordable health care.”