Mandatory minimum sentences back under the Gold Dome  

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.

Georgia House panel approves ‘pared back’ bill raising commercial truck weights

ATLANTA – A watered-down version of legislation increasing the weight limit on commercial trucks in Georgia cleared a state House committee this week.

The original version of House Bill 189, which the House Transportation Committee approved last week, would have raised the legal limit on commercial truck weights on Georgia roads and highways from 80,000 pounds to 90,000.

But the legislation was sent back to the committee after Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) officials, representatives of local governments, and traffic safety advocates complained during a marathon hearing that heavier trucks would damage roads and bridges, crippling local highway department budgets and forcing the DOT to divert resources from needed new construction to maintenance work.

The committee went back to the drawing board and reduced the scope of the bill to allow the higher weights only for trucks hauling agricultural products – including poultry – timber, granite, concrete, or solid waste. Lobbyists for Georgia farmers, poultry producers, and loggers were the legislation’s main supporters.

“We have significantly pared back the number of vehicles that would be allowed to run over the limit,” Rep. Steven Meeks, R-Screven, told committee members Wednesday.

The scaled-back version of Meek’s bill the committee approved by a 12-7 vote also would prohibit commercial trucks from traveling with the higher weight more than 250 miles from the farm or other processing facility where the load originated. Heavier trucks also would not be allowed on interstate highways, which are subject to federal regulation.

The revamped bill now moves to the House Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote.

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

New bill aims to create HBCU “prosperity planning districts”   

State Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta, discusses her new proposal to create HBCU planning districts during a press conference in February. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – A new bill with bipartisan support would, if passed, take the first step toward creating “prosperity planning districts” around Georgia’s 10 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).  

“These planning districts allow … governments as well as private and philanthropic interests to leverage their resources to support innovation, technology, entrepreneurship at our HBCUs and modernize the campuses and surrounding communities,” said state Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta, who introduced the measure this week.  

The idea is to leverage the resources of the HBCUs to improve the economic and workforce prospects of surrounding communities, Halpern said. If eventually created, such prosperity planning districts around HBCUs would likely be the first of their kind in the country.  

“Perhaps some mixed-use housing could be developed on land owned by our HBCUs, also creating another revenue stream for the schools themselves,” Halpern said.

Halpern also suggested that funding for broadband upgrades could benefit both the colleges and their surrounding communities.  

Halpern’s bill proposes creating an 11-member commission within the state’s Department of Community Affairs to spearhead research about the needs of communities around the state’s HBCUs, with an eye toward recommending economic development measures around those campuses.

The commission would establish advisory committees for planning districts around Albany State University, Savannah State University, the Atlanta University Center, Fort Valley State University in Middle Georgia, and Paine College in Augusta.  

The proposal grew out of a Senate study committee focused on HBCUs that was chaired by Halpern and met several times last fall.  

Halpern is the main sponsor of the new bill, which has garnered support from Republican cosponsors Sens. Jason Anavitarte of Dallas, Brandon Beach of Alpharetta, and Billy Hickman of Statesboro.

It has been assigned to the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee, which is chaired by Beach.

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

State Senate panel OKs sports betting constitutional amendment

ATLANTA – A proposed constitutional amendment legalizing sports betting in Georgia cleared a state Senate committee this week.

Senate Resolution 140, subject to a statewide referendum next year, would allow online sports betting under the supervision of the Georgia Lottery Corp. and a newly created gaming commission.

Half of the state’s share of the proceeds from sports betting would go need-based scholarships for students to attend any of Georgia’s public or private colleges and universities as well as technical colleges.

Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships program was need based in its early years after voters approved creation of the Georgia Lottery in 1992 but was soon changed to a merit-based program.

One-quarter of the state’s share of sports betting revenue would be dedicated to health care – including mental health care – economic development and the “reduction of poverty” in low-income areas.

Another 15% would go to public health and educational programs for the prevention and treatment of addictive gambling.

Five percent would be used to solicit, promote, sponsor and host major sporting events in Georgia. The final 5% would benefit “innovational educational programs and services.”

A spokesman for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce spoke out in support of the constitutional amendment Thursday during a hearing held by the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.

“This is the first step in the creation of enhanced economic development and educational opportunities through a robust wagering ecosystem,” said David Raynor, the chamber’s public affairs officer.

Thursday’s hearing focused on efforts the state intends to undertake to prevent and treat problem gambling.

Mark Vander Linden, director of research and responsible gaming at the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, said the Senate legislation does a good job providing ways to help gamblers who become addicted to wagering.

But other speakers said the idea of stopping problem gambling is unrealistic because sports books can’t make money if they rely solely on casual players.

Les Bernal, national director of Washington, D.C.-based Stop Predatory Gambling, said casual players only account for 4% of gambling profits.

“Their business model is based on addictive gambling,” Bernal said.

After the committee approved the constitutional amendment, committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said the panel will take up an “enabling” bill spelling out specifics on how sports betting would operate in Georgia next week.

Sports betting is moving through the General Assembly this year on two tracks. Two bills pending in the Georgia House and Senate would legalize sports betting without changing the state constitution.

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

Two bills aimed at affordable housing draw industry backing and local criticism 

Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, introduced two bills aimed at housing affordability this week.

ATLANTA – Georgia Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, introduced two bills this week aimed at solving the Peach State’s affordable housing shortfall.  

The first, House Bill 517, or the Georgia Homeowner Opportunity Act, would prevent counties or municipalities from regulating a long list of building design elements, from the style of porches to the number and types of rooms. The bill would not affect certain historical buildings or the state’s minimum building standards.  

A second bill, HB 514, the Housing Regulation Transparency Act, would bar local governments from indefinitely extending moratoriums on new housing construction.  

“These bills are intended to lower housing costs, so that our Georgians who would like to buy a home will have a better opportunity on the path to financial freedom and financial stability and … to creating some generational wealth,” Washburn told Capitol Beat Thursday.

Washburn’s bills have drawn the support of a newly formed housing coalition.  

“[The bills] will cut government red tape, encourage private sector innovation, and increase access to safe, affordable housing for every Georgian,” said Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, one of the groups making up the new coalition. The other members are the Home Builders Association of Georgia, the Georgia Association of Realtors and Habitat for Humanity.  

The measures have also garnered support from some Democrats. Rep. Debra Bazemore, R-South Fulton, and Rep. Marvin Lim, D-Norcross, both signed on as co-sponsors, indicating that debates about affordable housing and local government control do not always break along party lines.  

“I definitely believe in local control in general, but there are certainly issues and times where we as a state need to stand up ultimately for the people and not just for the governmental jurisdiction,” Lim told Capitol Beat.  

“I hope anyone that opposes this does consider not just aesthetics and not just the ability of people in the highest income areas to be able to build the aesthetics they want … but [also] what … these regulations do to impede the building of affordable housing.”   

But local government advocates say the bills go too far.  

HB 517 bars local governments from regulating design elements and would stymy local control and the power of people’s votes, said Clint Mueller, director of government affairs at the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.  

Local governments must consider a number of infrastructure concerns – such as roads, sewage, and schools – when making decisions about housing and therefore have a direct interest in housing regulation, Mueller said.

“A local government’s job is to balance the wishes and needs of the community,” he said. “They are elected to provide that balance in the community … and they are able to respond to the needs of their community with the powers that they have.” 

Mueller gave the example of local governments that regulate architectural features such as roofing materials or design to ensure local homes can adequately withstand local conditions, such as high winds in coastal areas.  

The bill also provides no guarantee that cost savings from reduced regulation would be passed on to the consumer, Mueller said.

“Just because [builders] have less regulations, that doesn’t mean they’re going to sell the house for less,” Mueller said.  

“They’re just going to continue to do what they’ve always done and maximize the profit.. They’re not altruistic.” 

Mueller said targeted incentives might work better. He and local government advocates suggest that the incentive of relaxed design standards should be balanced by regulations requiring builders to actually reduce housing costs.  

“If state resources, city resources, county resources are going to be put into some type of … housing development, there needs to be some assurance of affordability,” agreed Jim Thornton, director of governmental relations at the Georgia Municipal Association. “There is nothing in the current legislation that does that.”  

Washburn pushed back on that argument.  

“I’m a former county commissioner,” he said. “But when you start going beyond land use and telling people how big a house they have to build, what they have to build it out of,  how big a lot they have to put it on, that is government overreach and it intrudes upon personal choice.”  

Both of Washburn’s bills have been assigned to the House Governmental Affairs Committee. Washburn said he hopes the bills get hearings next week.  

Democratic Rep. Spencer Frye of Athens – who is a real-estate developer – introduced a bill last week with a different approach. HB 490 is aimed at large institutional investors who are snapping up single-family homes and then renting them out in Atlanta and across the state.  

Frye’s bill would eliminate the tax benefit that allows rental-property owners to reduce their tax liability by about 3.6% of the cost of the rental property annually. The bill is aimed at large investors, not mom-and-pop operations, Frye said.

“They are allowed to use a rental home as a depreciation tax shelter,” he said. “They’re offsetting the rental gains with their depreciation tax shelter gains, and they make profit on the appreciation after they sell [the houses] in five to 10 years.”

“We need to cut the corporations out of the American nightmare and turn it into an American dream. By changing the tax code to remove the depreciation in their state taxes, we will disincentivize hedge funds from wanting to invest in Georgia.”  

Frye’s bill has been assigned to the House Ways and Means Committee.  

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