I wish I could tell you that Georgia's legislature understood crime and punishment. But it is almost certainly making the problem worse.
I wander the halls of the Georgia state legislature at my peril. The fear and loathing is real.
I promised one gaslighting quasi-Christian Republican state senator on Twitter that if I saw him in the hall I would call him a piece of dirt to his face, after the chamber passed the anti-trans Senate Bill 140 last week turning pediatricians into criminals. The last time I was at the legislature in session I got into a shouting argument beneath the bust of Oglethorpe with a mendacious Democratic state representative from south DeKalb.
The Gold Dome has secret spaces frequented only by politicians, crannies that would be a perfect place to leave my decaying corpse. Dar’shun Kendrick and Josh McLaurin know where they are. If I disappear, look there first, please.
I’m here tonight for Sine Die, the last day of the legislative year when legislation emerges from those dark, secret places. I was here a week ago as well, with my wife Sara as a bodyguard. I’m counting on enough witnesses tonight to survive.
I’m here looking at crime and punishment. Do lawmakers understand the contours of the problem of violence in ways that can solve that problem? Do we have the political temperament and political culture necessary to come to realistic and effective solutions, or do they just do what they think will win re-election?
After watching tonight, I still think those are open questions.
Lawmakers passed a bill to raise penalties for gang leaders who recruit children, for example. It comes after Governor Brian Kemp called for a change, which he started talking about after a Georgia Gang Investigators Association meeting last year sounded off about more children being inducted into gangs across the state.
Reform advocates are not happy about it.
“No one who is part of a criminal street gang or otherwise engaged in criminal activity is worried about mandatory minimums,” said Isabelle Otero, Georgia policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. “They're not going to know that these mandatory minimums exist. They're not going to know what the consequences of these things are.”
Five years ago, legislators sat through months of hearings where they learned how useless mandatory minimum sentencing can be. But many of those legislators have been replaced by new senators and representatives with different proclivities.
“I think it's politically advantageous right to see to show that you're being ‘tough on crime,’” Otero said. “The problem is that tough on crime policies have failed. They continue to fail. We have some of the most stringent anti-gang bills that have passed over the last few years. We haven't reduced gang activity in the state. Those are not the things that are going to solve this problem. And it's unfortunate, because while they might look politically advantageous, while it might give them something to feed their base, it is ultimately hurting communities to do this kind of public policy.”
Lawmakers seem to be in full retreat from former Governor Nathan Deal’s reforms. At the local level, it’s because gunfire and drag racing are louder than the reform advocates can shout. But at the state level, I think it’s perhaps because the moderating influences of strong institutional leadership are no longer at work.
Former speaker David Ralston died in November. Venerable and venerated, Ralston’s absence is keenly felt. His absence also shows in the nature of the legislation Georgia considered this year. This is the end of the first session under Georgia’s new speaker Jon Burns and its new lieutenant governor Burt Jones, who serves a similar function to the speaker in the state senate.
“I think this is the first time in 60 years, 70 years, that we've had a new Lieutenant Governor and a new speaker at the same time,” said State Senator Mike Dugan, a Republican from Carrollton. “So it is okay to be a little bit more deliberate. It's not a sprint. Take time. Look through it. Let everybody get settled into their jobs, and then move ahead.”
I have to say, Dugan’s assessment of the reasons violence has increased is very close to my own.
“I don't think the gang activity and the rise of crime is isolated in Atlanta,” he said. “And what I've seen, it's not even been the major cities, but just across the country. I think there was the stress of the pandemic, the uncertainty with what's going on in the world. There was a whole bunch of things that came together as a perfect storm that created this increase in crime across the nation … but just because it happened, doesn't mean it should be allowed to continue to go forward.”
If I am reading Dugan right, Republicans and Democrats — at least the ones who know what they’re talking about — seem to agree on what’s causing the problem. But there are stark disagreements about what to do about it.
This morning, Georgia’s house voted to require cash bail for 31 offenses, the list of which captures the zeitgeist. Drag racing and reckless driving. Obstruction of a law enforcement officer. Marijuana possession. Racketeering. Domestic terrorism. Rioting. Some of the charges are misdemeanors, like failure to appear for court, a problem opponents of bail reform cited as the driver for the legislation.
In the last hour of regulation tonight, the bill looks dead, as the House and Senate could not come to a resolution on terms.
Once upon a time, lawmakers believed that people with a little money shouldn’t be able to buy their way out of jail while a poor person facing the same charge should have their financial lives further ruined in a cell. Five years ago, lawmakers passed sweeping legislation to eliminate required cash bail for most misdemeanors as part of Deal’s last push to reform Georgia’s criminal code.
The halls are filled with familiar faces. Last week, Michael Scott Carlson of the Fulton County District Attorney’s office testified in service to a bill to allow prosecution of street gangs across jurisdictions and to increase criminal penalties for some acts of abuse against a child and disabled persons.
“This is in direct work to combat the gang crisis,” Carlson said. “We have as most of us know, estimates are 70 to 90 percent of every violent crime in this state is conducted by a criminal street gang member.” (I note in passing that one legislator pushed for sources for that statistic later.) “They go after our most vulnerable victims. This is very consistent with the work that Governor Nathan Deal did where we had to separate those who we’re mad at versus who we’re afraid of. These are the people we are afraid of.”
This bill stalled in committee. I’m sitting in the halls, watching seersucker-suited lobbyists float by on a cloud of methane, waiting until the midnight bell rings to see if it comes back out in some mutated form.
Every time I ask people here how the session went, a remarkable expression rises on their faces before they even say a word, this thousand-yard stare, a mixture of exasperation and scorn like they’ve just been asked to explain a David Cronenberg movie. I think I’m going to take pictures of them as I see it tonight for an art project later.
The saying ‘ Poverty breeds crime’ is as old as it is true. Frankly, if the southside schools had the resources my kid has in North Atlanta, there could be a big change in graduation rates & positive outcomes.
Moving tax dollars ($6500 per kid) to help private school/home school kids -as the legislature attempted-is exactly the opposite direction GA needs to go.
From you, George, I take the following as representative of extreme optimism:
Do lawmakers understand the contours of the problem of violence in ways that can solve that problem? Do we have the political temperament and political culture necessary to come to realistic and effective solutions, or do they just do what they think will win re-election?
After watching tonight, I still think those are open questions."
I guess I'm cynical enough to think re-election currency is the driver and I'm pretty excited that you may be suggesting other factors may be at play. thanks!