New Ga. law addresses gang sentencing

It is one of several new laws that went into effect on July 1.
Published: Jul. 3, 2023 at 9:21 PM EDT
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VALDOSTA, Ga. (WALB) - Several new laws went into effect July 1 that could affect many South Georgians. One that stood out the most, especially for the Valdosta and Lowndes County area is Senate Bill 44. It involves sentencing for gang offenses.

Leaders in South Georgia hope the bill improves the behavior of the younger generation.

Governor Brian Kemp recently signed Senate Bill 44 into law. Which adds a mandatory 10 years to prison sentences for anyone convicted of recruiting a minor into a gang.

“I actually can support Senate Bill 44 because, right now, that’s one of the biggest recruiting’s that we actually have in the state of Georgia. Well, actually all over the country, gang relations are taking in more recruits and kids every day,” Aaron Winston, founder of Reach Two a Valdosta-based nonprofit aimed towards helping children in the community, said.

Each month, we receive many releases from law enforcement about juveniles and crime. Children as young as 11 have been arrested for armed robbery, aggravated assault and even shootings.

“One of the problems with these gangs is some of the recruiters now are juveniles. The ones being recruited are 12 and 13 and the ones doing the recruiting are 15 and 16. It’s very troubling,” Lowndes County Sheriff Ashely Paulk said.

In March 2023, the bill passed by a vote of 30-20. A first conviction brings a mandatory 10 years in prison, but no more than 20 years.

“I think this is going to help. It’s a good tool to be a deterrent. Maybe some of these younger people are going to see the example of what happens to somebody and change their attitude about being in a gang,” Paulk said.

Some in the community feel this bill is a good plan of action, but they also feel law enforcement agencies, organizations and community members could be more proactive than reactive.

“For the last three years, my program was focusing more on the high schools. Now, we’re understanding this year we need to go to elementary and middle schools. I think that if we can get them young and get them early, we can actually produce a productive citizen,” Winston said.

Winston has held several events to steer children in the right direction. He feels community members should be more involved, especially parents.

“I can deal with the kids in my program, but I send that back home to that same environment. So, let’s work together hand and hand as a collective community. It takes a village to raise a child. Reach one, teach one, mind elevation, mind motivation,” Winston said.

Soo Hong, who carries bills for Governor Kemp as a floor leader, commented on the bill passing, saying “Gangs must recruit in order to survive. And we are sending a strong message with this bill that if you come into our state and you are recruiting our children that we will have severe punishment for you.”