State House approves bill requiring mandatory minimum sentences for gang recruitment

Rep. Soo Hong, R-Lawrenceville, sponsored an anti-gang-recruitment bill in the state House. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA –  The Georgia House of Representatives passed legislation Monday imposing mandatory minimum prison terms for gang recruitment.

The bill, which originated in the state Senate, would require judges to impose prison sentences of at least five years on those convicted of recruiting gang members. It also would require tougher penalties for those who recruit someone under age 17 or someone with a disability to a gang, requiring at least a 10-year sentence.   

 Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has made cracking down on gangs an important part of his legislative agenda this year. The bill is one of a number of measures aimed at that goal.  

“This sends a strong message: If you come into our state and are recruiting our children, then we will have severe punishment for you,” said Rep. Soo Hong, R-Lawrenceville, one of the governor’s floor leaders and the sponsor of the bill in the House.  

The bill would also require judges to look at the history of people accused of serious crimes to see if they have previously jumped bail or failed to appear in court before allowing the accused an “unsecured judicial release.”  

Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said that gang members in his district have started moving their operations across the border to South Carolina because of Georgia’s already-stiff gang penalties.  

“I’m here to tell you from my own community: This stuff will and does work,” Fleming said.  

However, Democrats opposed the measure, arguing that mandatory minimum sentences will not solve Georgia’s gang problems.  

“This bill fails to implement evidence-based strategies actually proven to prevent children from being recruited into gangs and making us safer,” said Rep. Tanya Miller, D-Atlanta. “This bill will move our state backwards solely for the purpose of appearing to be tough on crime.”  

Miller, a former prosecutor, also argued that the bill would violate the doctrine of separation of powers because it would limit judges’ flexibility in sentencing.  

Other Democrats argued the bill would increase costs to taxpayers and undermine the legacy of former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who oversaw landmark criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the number of people incarcerated in Georgia.  

“Mandatory minimums … fail to deter crime,” said Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville. “They disproportionately harm people of color and fail to promote public safety.” 

The House passed the bill 99-74, primarily along party lines. Because the House amended the bill in committee, it now heads back to the Senate.

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

State Senate panel approves compromise truck weights bill

ATLANTA – A Georgia Senate committee further scaled back legislation Monday that would raise the weight limit on trucks plying state and local highways.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 7-4 in favor of a compromise version of House Bill 189 to let certain commercial trucks exceed the current legal weight limit of 80,000 pounds by 10%, for a total of 88,000 pounds, on roads other than interstate highways, which are subject to federal restrictions.

The legislation would apply only to trucks carrying timber or agricultural products. Representatives of the logging, farm and livestock industries have complained that having their trucks limited to 80,000 pounds would hurt their businesses by forcing them to make more trips.

Commercial trucks have become accustomed to carrying loads weighing up to 95,000 pounds since the pandemic struck Georgia three years ago. However, an executive order Gov. Brian Kemp issued during the early days of the pandemic to allow heavier trucks expired last week.

The version of the bill the state House of Representatives passed two weeks ago would have allowed commercial trucks hauling additional types of loads – including granite, concrete, and solid waste – to exceed the 80,000-pound weight limit. The original legislation introduced early last month would have applied no matter what a commercial truck was hauling.

But representatives of local governments and state Department of Transportation officials warned as the bill went through the committee process that heavier trucks would do tremendous damage to state and local highways, forcing them to devote large portions of their budgets to fixing existing roads rather than building new ones. Highway safety advocates also raised the greater danger posed by heavier trucks.

“We believe this is a fair compromise,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said Monday of the bill that emerged from the Senate Transportation Committee.

The legislation allows commercial trucks to exceed the 80,000-pound limit only for trucks hauling timber or a farm or livestock product within 75 miles of the product’s point of origin. It also prohibits heavier trucks inside metro Atlanta.

The bill includes a “sunset” provision that calls for the legislation to expire on July 1 of next year. That’s to give lawmakers time to come up with a plan for increasing state funding of highway and bridge projects.

Georgia currently ranks sixth to last in road infrastructure funding per mile, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, said Monday.

“We have not gone to significant lengths to make sure we invest in the long-term future of our infrastructure,” he said. “If we’re going to do [heavier] truck weights, we need to be responsible for improving the assets of the state.”

House Bill 189 moves next to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full Senate.

Georgia Film Academy brings on new executive director

ATLANTA – A Georgia native with 35 years of experience in the entertainment industry has been named executive director of the Georgia Film Academy (GFA).

C. Scott Votaw got his start in Hollywood working on sets for commercials, film and episodic television, before working for production companies including Saban, Fox, Lucasfilm Ltd. and other independent content creation companies.

Most recently, he worked as an international consultant to studio infrastructure providers, workforce development and emerging technology companies within the film and entertainment production sectors in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Alongside GFA’s amazing team of professionals, I hope to leverage years of global industry expertise and relationships to expand partnerships and train more Georgians for jobs in the rapidly changing film, television and digital entertainment industry,” Votaw said.

“I look forward to increasing collaboration with our partner institutions and industry stakeholders by using emerging technologies to transform how content is created and consumed – all while creating innovative instructional and learning experiences for students and adult learners statewide.”

Votaw succeeds former GFA Executive Director Jeffrey Stepakoff, who left the position last July to form a talent management and production company.

Since its founding in 2015, GFA has met an increasing demand for educational and workforce needs within Georgia’s growing film and creative industries by bringing professional training opportunities to 28 institutions across the state – including those in the University System of Georgia (USG) as well as the Technical College System of Georgia. The film academy is part of the USG, which hired Votaw.

The film academy offers film production, post-production and digital entertainment certification programs, allowing students the opportunity to gain real-life experience through internships working on sets and in the offices of film and television productions and post-production facilities.

Since the General Assembly approved a lucrative film tax credit for the industry in 2008, Georgia has gained significant momentum as a leader in the film industry. With the largest incentive program in the industry and more than 100 sound stages, film and television productions spent a record $4.4 billion in Georgia during the last fiscal year.

Jones hoping sports betting, school vouchers succeed in session’s final stretch

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones presides over the state Senate (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – With less than two weeks remaining in this year’s General Assembly session, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones has morphed from a lighting-rod political figure to a de facto life coach for anxious lawmakers.

“Everything’s gonna be alright” is the advice Republican Jones is handing out as the legislative session hits the final stretch.  

As lieutenant governor, Jones presides over the state Senate, wielding his heavy gavel from the dais overlooking the chamber where he spent a decade as a senator representing Jackson and central Georgia.   

“I don’t think there’s one piece of legislation out there that the state of the Republic depends on — other than the budget,” the new lieutenant governor said of his approach to the frenetic final days of the session.  

Speaking of the budget, Jones is pleased about across-the-board $2,000 pay raises for state employees as well a property tax rebate drawn from Georgia’s historic budget surplus.  

And he’s applying his equanimous approach to a sports betting measure making its way through the legislature.  

It’s a proposal Jones supports personally but, even if it doesn’t pass, “the following day will still come,” he said.  

Sports betting — after appearing to have died prior to the all-important “Crossover Day” deadline earlier this month– may have gained new life this week when it was tacked onto an unrelated bill about soap box derbies.   

Jones said he thought it was wise for the legislature to consider sports betting apart from other gambling measures.

“History has shown that when you either put sports betting and casinos or sports betting and horse racing together, they usually don’t go anywhere,” he said.

“I had told people in the [Republican] caucus who were interested in sports betting that it would get a fair look, and so we’re gonna see how it does by itself.”

Jones contends that sports betting proceeds could help increase state revenues for the HOPE scholarship and help pay for expanded offerings such as scholarships for technical schools and early childhood learning.  

“I think you’re going to need to pick up additional revenue streams [for those programs], and this one is legal in 36 other states,” he said. 

Jones also would like to see a school vouchers measure pass. The bill would provide Georgia students in low-performing schools with $6,000 scholarships to pay for private school or certain other educational costs.  

“If we can get final passage, that will be a big win for us,” Jones said. 

Legislative Democrats have criticized the bill for diverting money from the public school system and noted that the scholarship amount is insufficient to cover the full cost of private-school tuition.  

“Six thousand dollars could be the difference between closing the gap for those families that would like to have another option,” Jones said in response to that concern. “I think it’s a good first step.”  

A vouchers bill passed by the Senate is slated to be taken up by a House committee. If approved, it could be sent to the full House for a floor vote.  

“I’ve seen school voucher bills fail in the Senate. I’ve seen them fail in the House, and I’ve seen them pass both chambers,” Jones said. “But there’s never been a time when they were successful in passing both chambers, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”  

Jones is also optimistic about prospects for this year’s mental health bill.

After the bill breezed through the state House of Representatives, Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, has announced that the Senate Health and Human Services Committee will consider a modified version of the bill in a case of inter-chamber wrangling. 

“There’s a lot of subject matter there to tackle, a lot of moving parts,” Jones said. “We’re trying to get to a place where we’ll have something both chambers can agree on.”

Far more controversial is a bill that would prohibit transgender youths in Georgia from receiving either hormone-replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgery even if their parents and doctors approve.  

­­­“I don’t think we need to make it OK for something as drastic as trying to either through medication or surgical procedures …. do permanent changes to a child that could have significant long-term effects in a negative way,” Jones said.

The lieutenant governor said he is not concerned the controversial measure could damage Georgia’s reputation with large businesses.  

“I haven’t heard from the business community at all on this,” he said. “There will be things we do that the business community doesn’t like … but in most cases, it’s not the majority.”

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

Lawmakers weighing overhaul of compensating wrongfully convicted Georgians

ATLANTA – It was eight minutes after midnight last April 5 when the Georgia Senate voted unanimously to compensate Kerry Robinson financially for spending more than 17 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.

One minute later, another unanimous Senate vote awarded financial compensation to Dennis Arnold Perry, who spent more than 20 years behind bars for two murders he did not commit.

Technically, the two resolutions gained final passage after the midnight deadline for the 40th and final day of the 2022 legislative session.

Waiting until the last moment to do right by the two men was a glaring example of the need to overhaul Georgia’s system for compensating the wrongfully convicted, state Rep. Scott Holcomb said on the House floor earlier this month.

“That’s not how this process should be handled,” said Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “We’ve got to do better.”

Holcomb’s remarks came just before the House voted 157-17 in favor of his bill calling for a new system for compensating the wrongfully convicted.

House Bill 364 would create a five-member panel of experts in the criminal justice system, including a judge, retired judge, or retired justice; a district attorney, a criminal defense lawyer; and two attorneys, forensic experts, or law professors with expertise in wrongful convictions.

Georgians who have been exonerated of a crime for which they were wrongfully convicted, often through DNA evidence that was not available at the time of their trial, could submit compensation claims to the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Review Panel.

The panel would determine whether compensation is warranted, fix an amount of compensation, and refer its findings to a newly created Claims Advisory Board chaired by Georgia’s secretary of state and including the state commissioners of human services, corrections, and transportation.

The board, in turn, would report the findings to the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, who would include any recommendations for compensation in that year’s state budget.

Compensation awards under the bill would fall between $50,000 to $100,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration, depending on the panel’s judgment.

The new system would replace a process that requires the wrongfully convicted to find a legislative sponsor for a private compensation resolution and convince the House Appropriations Committee to pass it.

“HB 384 would remove much of the partisan politics from the compensation process and impose clear criteria for determining innocence and granting compensation,” Blis Savidge, spokeswoman for the Georgia Innocence Project, an advocacy group that works to free the wrongfully convicted, wrote in an email to Capitol Beat.

“Rather than snap judgments being made by legislators based upon partial information conveyed in short legislative hearings, the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Review Panel would be composed of relevant experts and have research and investigative capabilities.”

Molly Parmer, a Georgia Innocence Project board member, said 35 states and the federal government already use the compensation system proposed in Holcomb’s legislation.

“It’s been thoroughly vetted,” she said. “It’s modeled after those existing bills.”

Parmer said there’s nothing automatic about the new compensation system. The wrongfully convicted still would have to prove their cases warrant financial compensation but in a more appropriate venue, she said.

“Certainly, the experts will be in a better position to dole out compensation if they think it’s warranted,” she said.

The House passed similar legislation last year, also sponsored by Holcomb, but it died in the Senate. This year’s bill is pending before the Senate Appropriations Committee but has yet to get a hearing.