By Beau Evans, Staff Writer, Capitol Beat News Service
Georgia law enforcement officials are urging state lawmakers to boost funding for a new criminal gang task force and database to track tens of thousands of gang members in the state.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget calls for nearly $1.6 million this fiscal year and next to add seven agents and analysts to the gang task force, more than doubling its current staff.
It would also pump $420,000 into a gang database created in 2010 that has gone unfunded. The database would allow local sheriffs’ offices and city police departments to better share information on gang activity in the state, officials say.
Georgia has more than 71,000 gang members at large plus another roughly 30,000 in prison or on parole, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds. It’s likely the actual number of gang members is higher, he said.
“This is the major issue facing law enforcement today,” Reynolds told a joint hearing of the House and Senate Public Safety committees.
The gang member figures were collected from most of the state’s local jurisdictions by the Georgia Gang Investigators Association, Reynolds said.
Georgia anti-gang law sets up to 20 years in prison for a conviction. It’s among the toughest penalties in the country, officials say.
Senate Public Safety Committee Chairman John Albers said lawmakers have not yet settled on what, if any, new anti-gang bills should be introduced during the 2020 legislative session.
Reynolds also said the state needs to pay more attention to gang-intervention efforts and provide more funding for school resource officers.
Sen. Valencia Seay agreed, saying schools serve as prime training grounds for youth gang involvement along with juvenile detention centers.
“They are recruiting from the schools,” said Seay, D-Riverdale. “So we do need to have that.”
Sen. Randy Robertson, a retired major with the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, said he supports cracking down on gangs in Georgia but worries that could prompt a spike in juvenile arrests. Tougher enforcement should be paired with legislation to deal with the potential juvenile inmate increase, he said.
“What we’ll see is an influx on an already taxed justice system,” said Robertson, R-Cataula.
Tougher state anti-gang law enforcement has been a major plank of Kemp’s agenda since his gubernatorial campaign in 2018. He launched the new task force last year under the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
This legislative session, the governor wants lawmakers to back giving prosecutors more tools to target gangs and to boost funding for the statewide gang database.
“While Georgia already has tough gang statutes on the books, there’s more that we can do to stop violence in our state,” Kemp said in his Jan. 16 “State of the State” speech.