State Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, speaks against a bill imposing tougher penalties for gang recruitment. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – The state Senate gave final passage Wednesday to legislation imposing mandatory minimum prison terms for gang recruitment. 

Senate Bill 44 requires judges to impose prison sentences of at least five years on those convicted of recruiting gang members. It would also impose 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.  

“There’s no room for street gangs in Georgia. This bill is going to help prosecutors across the state. It’s going to help children,” said Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, one of the governor’s Senate floor leaders. “It’s going to really provide serious penalties for someone that tries to recruit a child into a life of crime by asking them to join a street gang.”  

The Georgia House of Representatives amended the bill earlier this month to restrict judges’ abilities to allow people accused of certain crimes to be released without bond, called an “unsecured judicial release” in legal parlance.  

The bill would prohibit judges from allowing people accused of certain crimes  to go without bond if they have been convicted of bond jumping within the past five years or if a bench warrant for a failure to appear in court has been issued to the person within the past five years.  

Judges would also be required to consider the accused’s criminal history before allowing release without bail. 

The bond-related additions to the bill drew criticism from Senate Democrats.  

“These cash bail provisions are not limited to gang activity,” said Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs.

“Let’s say you miss court for some reason and there are plenty of human reasons to miss court.[If] you get charged with improper lane change or speeding … now all of a sudden the judge does not have discretion for five years to let you go on your own recognizance. They have to put a cash dollar value on your bail.”  

Hatchett dismissed those concerns. 

“If you do not show up for court and you have a bench warrant – let’s say you had work – and then you go back to court, you tell them, ‘Hey, I didn’t show up.’ “ Then, the warrant will be recalled,” he said. “Once the warrant’s recalled, the five-year clock no longer applies. That’s what it says in the bill.” 

The legislation passed on a 30-20 party line vote and now heads to Gov. Kemp’s desk for his signature.

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