Group of men and women sitting at a table, woman smiling in the front with men talking with eachother
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr speaks to Gov. Brian Kemp, second right, during an anti-gang task force meeting on Wednesday, Feb., 9, 2022, in Atlanta, as Marty Kemp, the governor's wife, looks on. Carr and Kemp are supporting moves to give Carr's office more power to prosecute gang crimes. (Jeff Amy/AP)

Some previously convicted people would be required to serve at least five years in prison if they are caught committing another crime with a gun, under a proposal being debated in Georgia’s state Senate.

Senate Bill 359 is part of a broader crime crackdown led by Republicans but supported by some Democrats. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is also supporting House Bill 1134, which would let Attorney General Chris Carr’s office prosecute gang crimes without an invitation from local district attorneys.

The measures are a reaction to increasing violence in many parts of Georgia, but in some cases undercut previous efforts under Gov. Nathan Deal to reduce the number of people in state prisons.

Republican Sen. John Albers of Roswell is sponsoring Senate Bill 359. The measure makes domestic violence a felony. It also requires judges to sentence people previously convicted of a violent crime to at least five years in prison without the possibility of parole or probation if they are convicted of using a gun in a new crime.

“These are people who are literally causing violent crimes in our neighborhoods throughout our state every day,” Albers said after a hearing on the bill Tuesday. “And it’s time we lock those folks up. This revolving door of justice for violent criminals doesn’t work.”

Among those supporting the bill was Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat.

“I think that this law allows us to penalize people that use guns for violence, and I stand behind it completely,” she said Tuesday.

The measure also allows prosecutors to bring charges in any county linked to a gang crime. Willis and Albers said gang prosecutions are complicated, crimes usually reach across county lines, and that not every county can undertake them.

That’s the same rationale behind Kemp’s push to enable Carr’s office to prosecute gang crimes. After a meeting of the state’s anti-gang task force on Wednesday, Carr said gangs have expanded far beyond metro Atlanta and into a variety of crimes.

“It’s all about making money right now — selling guns, drugs, human beings, cybercrime, even stealing people’s benefits — any way to make money,” Carr said.

Kemp proposed $1.3 million in the state budget beginning July 1 for Carr to hire 12 people to start a gang prosecution unit. Kemp also wants to spend $317,000 to expand the human trafficking prosecution unit that he pushed to create in Carr’s office several years ago.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Assistant Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director John Melvin called the gang prosecution proposals “the appropriate nuclear bomb we can use to take out the bad actors.”

The mandatory five-year sentence in Albers’ bill chips away at changes made under Deal that gave judges the ability to give lighter prison sentences. Albers’ bill would also increase penalties for repeat abusers of children, the elderly and the disabled.

“That makes it a mandatory minimum,” Jill Travis, executive director of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Tuesday. “This is just going backwards in time in terms of taking away the discretion from the very capable judges.”

Albers, though, rejected the claim that he was undercutting the previous changes, saying he focuses only on violent offenders, and that earlier reforms are “still at the heart of this.”

The measure would give the GBI the power to run statewide investigations on elections and various kinds of terrorism without local permission.

The bill would require an annual report from accountability courts, such as drug courts and mental health courts, which seek alternatives to prison for certain offenders. Albers said some people who have committed violent acts have improperly been sent to accountability courts and said a report would provide the oversight to quash such moves.

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