ATLANTA – Republicans in the General Assembly are making a renewed push for “mandatory minimum” sentences this year in the hopes of reducing crimes in Georgia.  

Such laws require judges to impose minimum sentences and often prohibit probation or other commutation of criminal sentences in an effort to deter criminal activity.   

But Democratic lawmakers and independent experts question whether the mandatory-minimum approach will solve the crime problem.  

The debate centers on whether tougher punishments truly deter criminal activity and, if they do not, what does.  

So far this session, the state Senate has passed three bills imposing mandatory minimum sentences.

One proposal, supported by Gov. Brian Kemp and carried by his floor leader Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, requires judges to impose prison sentences of at least five years for those convicted of gang-recruiting activities and 10 years for those convicted of recruiting people under 17 years old.  

A second bill, sponsored by Roswell Republican Sen. John Albers, imposes a minimum five-year sentence for possession of a firearm by a person convicted of a domestic violence felony. 

A third, sponsored by former law-enforcement officer and Cataula Republican Sen. Randy Robertson, makes pimping and pandering (purchasing sex) a felony and requires a mandatory minimum sentence of at least one year in most cases.  

Robertson acknowledged that such “tough on crime” approaches have fallen out of favor while speaking about his bill on the Senate floor this month.   

“There are extreme examples of tougher sentences for all offenses throughout the country, and we have gone back and corrected that … and I would certainly hope our country has learned from that,” Robertson said. But he contended that for pimping and purchasing sex, in particular, tougher sentences will deter crime.  

“We have seen a rise in crime like we have not seen in generations, and it’s time to turn the tide,” Albers said in support of Robertson’s measure. “You vote ‘no’ on this bill, you’re saying, ‘I support the criminals.’ ” 

Democrats, however, mostly oppose such measures.  

Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, a former solicitor general in Richmond County, argued the bill aimed at gang recruiting could have the unintended consequence of reducing sentences for those guilty of serious crimes and putting tough penalties on those convicted of relatively minor crimes. 

A low-level gang member is unlikely to have useful information that would lead to the identification or conviction of a senior gang member, Jones said during a Senate floor debate. 

“The person who doesn’t know anything … they go to jail five years [because] they can’t tell on anybody. … They have nothing to offer,” he said.   

Criminal defense attorneys, as well, oppose the measures as the wrong solution to the problem.   

“People in reality don’t look to see what the criminal code says to find the mandatory penalty and become discouraged by that penalty to pursue whatever behavior they’re going to pursue,” said Mazie Lynn Guertin, executive director of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, during a committee hearing.  

Independent experts agree that such measures are unlikely to work.  

“It’s one of the things where it sounds good in theory, but there’s very little consistent evidence to suggest that there’s that beneficial effect,” said Daniel Mears, a distinguished research professor in criminology at Florida State University.  

“It’s not a good betting option, and it’s certainly not one that you would pursue if you’re pursuing evidence-based policy.”

Mears said mandatory minimum laws could have a host of unwanted consequences. They take away power from judges who are supposed to be the impartial arbiters of criminal cases. The measures can also bolster the power of gangs inside prisons, which can then filter back into life “on the outside.”  

“After a certain amount of a penalty … there’s no deterrent effect,” agreed Charles Katz, director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at Arizona State University.  

“If you commit a gun-related crime, you deserve to be punished to the full extent of the law. But adding lengthier sentences after a certain point – you’re not getting anything more out of it.” 

Katz said politicians pursue such tough-on-crime policies because they “tug on people’s emotions” despite the lack of evidence to support the measures.  

Katz pointed to an approach called “pulling levers,” or focused deterrence, as having strong evidence behind it. 

In that approach, police engage with a target population, usually chronic offenders, explain how the criminal justice system will respond to their crimes and offer resources such as housing or employment to help address the causes of crime.  

The pulling levers approach is rated as promising by the federal government’s National Institute of Justice. The approach has worked in many communities, Katz said, and even wealthy Republican activist brothers Charles and David Koch put their money behind the approach.  

In Georgia, the three tough-on-crime bills are now set to be considered by the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.