In a lengthy statement, the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the state’s gang laws and sentencing guidelines are already strict — as evidenced by the sentence for Nicholas’ killer. The legislation also has defense attorneys on edge because the governor has proposed decreasing funding for public defenders and increasing funding for prosecutors and the GBI.
Deborah Rider, who lost her son in drive-by shooting, reacts as Gov. Brian Kemp (not pictured) introduces anti-gang bills during a press conference at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta on Thursday, January 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Nicholas' mother is most thankful for another part of the proposal: the bill would make defendants in gang-related murder cases automatically eligible for the death penalty. The death penalty can already be used in a wide range of cases that could include gang incidents, although capital punishment has become far less common in recent years as life without parole has become more common.
“If I’d had my way, it would’ve been (the) death penalty,” Nicholas’ mother, Deborah Rider, said after the news conference.
The mother said the prosecutor told her the case wasn’t eligible for the death penalty under the law at the time. Rider said she was overwhelmingly thankful to the governor for proposing the bill.
Nicholas Sheffey, 11, died in a February 2010 drive-by shooting in Chamblee. (credit: Family photo handout)
A companion bill would create a legal division of the GBI so that, when requested, the agency’s lawyers could serve as special prosecutors. That’s an attempt to help rural or understaffed district attorney’s offices handle more gang cases, which are notoriously time-consuming. Asked if he was concerned about prosecutors losing their independence while working for a law enforcement agency, Kemp said he was not.
In Kemp’s budget proposal this year, he is asking legislators to approve spending nearly $2 million for seven new positions on the GBI’s Gang Task Force and resources to set up the statewide gang database.
Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a press conference to introduce anti-gang bills at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta on Thursday, January 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
The proposed bills announced Thursday would give new and broad power to prosecutors to fight gangs, even allowing them to prosecute gang activity that didn’t happen in their jurisdiction if it had a connection to a local case.
Kemp said the measures are all necessary to combat gangs, which are causing crime in almost every county of the state.
Critics have questioned whether gang-related issues in Georgia are as pronounced as Kemp’s office suggests. Since 2011, violent crime is down 13 percent in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
GBI Director Vic Reynolds recently told legislators that gang activity was the top concern for Georgia law enforcement in a 2019 survey. Attorney General Chris Carr agreed that the problem is real, as did federal, state and local officials in attendance at the Monday meeting.
“Investing in prevention and not prosecution is the only answer to solve this purported gang crisis we are facing,” said Ashleigh Merchant, a Marietta defense attorney who is the legislative chair at the state criminal defense association.
Gov. Brian Kemp comforts Deborah Rider, who lost her son in a drive-by shooting, during a press conference to introduce anti-gang bills at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta on Thursday, January 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Kemp also spoke about prevention Thursday. He said churches, community organizations and, most of all, families need to work to keep young people from joining gangs in the first place. Asked about the administration’s efforts for prevention, officials pointed to gang-combating programs in the state prison system, which has increased anti-gang efforts in recent years. The administration also said Kemp’s proposed teacher raises could help kids, as could the record low unemployment rate in the state.
Dominic Stokes, who founded Community Teen Coalition to help deter young people from joining gangs, said he’s generally supportive of the governor’s efforts to hold criminal gang members accountable, but Stokes wants to hear more discussion about prevention and intervention than just locking people up. “Five years from now (the gang issue) is going to increase if we don’t intervene,” he said.
Reynolds stressed that it would be up to judges whether to impose stricter sentences.
“I think you need to give judges discretion to focus harsher sentencing on gang members who commit more violent crime, who have a history of gang activity, as opposed to first-timers,” he said.