Georgia lawmakers told that rise in crime is a problem with many causes

Georgia’s State Capitol in Atlanta. (AJC file photo)

Credit: AJC

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Georgia’s State Capitol in Atlanta. (AJC file photo)

Credit: AJC

Experts told a panel of Georgia lawmakers that the rising crime rates in Atlanta and across the state need to be addressed from a variety of angles.

And just like there is no one solution, there’s no one cause.

“There’s just no way to tell exactly why it’s hitting the way it’s hitting,” said Pete Skandalakis, director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. “You can’t blame it all on the pandemic. You can’t blame it all on guns. You can’t blame it all on the criminal justice system. You can’t blame it on the police. You can’t even blame it all the riots that occurred out west or even in the city of Atlanta. There’s no one cause that causes a surge in crime rates.”

The House Public Safety Committee has been tasked with studying the spike in violent crime in Atlanta in the past year and presenting solutions to the Legislature as state Republican leaders have put a focus on the capital city.

Republicans have jumped on Atlanta’s rise in homicides to make fighting violent crime a cornerstone of their 2022 election strategy up and down the ballot.

Atlanta had a historically deadly 2020, when authorities investigated 157 homicide cases — the most in more than two decades. This year, as of June, homicides had increased in Atlanta by more than 50% and shootings were up by 40% compared with the same time period in 2020.

In response, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has taken steps to curb the problems, including creating an office of violence reduction and announcing plans to invest $70 million to develop and implement strategies to address crime.

The Georgia Department of Public Safety earlier this year created a “crime suppression unit” that will be staffed by 10 officers focused on the Atlanta area, the agency’s commissioner told lawmakers. He, Skandalakis and Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said more police and increased visibility will help tamp down crime.

“We must all be mindful that we will not be able to police our way out of this. We will not be able to lock up enough folks, regardless of how many police officers we have,” Bryant said. “But having a police presence does have an effect on both the perception of crime plus the ability for an individual to commit a crime.“

Adrienne Penake, a volunteer with the gun control organization Moms Demand Action, encouraged lawmakers to also invest in grassroots anti-crime organizations to try to head off gun violence.

“Community-based violence intervention programs already have successful relationships in their local communities,” she said. “They can directly address the surge in violence in Atlanta and the surrounding communities of Georgia.”

State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, pushed back on the idea of devoting funds to anti-crime groups.

“First and foremost, I tend to believe the first obligation of the government is public safety,” Powell said. A lack of police “ is what creates anarchy,” he added, “and that’s what we need to be dealing with at this time.”

Gov. Brian Kemp has called on the Legislature to pass policies aimed at curbing crime during a special legislative session already planned for this fall. House Speaker David Ralston announced his intent to boost criminal justice funding by $75 million next year, and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan proposed creation of a $250 million tax credit for Georgians who donate directly to local police departments or sheriff’s offices.

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