Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder
January 18, 2024
Several state agencies are seeking millions more in state funds to handle the growing caseload resulting from the state’s recent crackdown on street gangs.
Republican Attorney General Chris Carr and the directors of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Georgia Public Defender Council presented budget requests to state lawmakers on Thursday that include creating a new street gang task force, hiring new street gang data analysts, and hiring more attorneys who specialize in felony organized crime cases.
With the passage of a new state law endorsed by Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly, Carr’s office in July 2022 created its first statewide gang prosecution unit that has since led to the indictment of more than 100 people and two dozen convictions. The overall number of gang-related cases is more extensive across Georgia, with the GBI data confirming that in 2023 a total of 287 street gang investigations across 93 counties leading to 325 arrests on felony charges.
The Attorney General’s Gang Prosecution Unit based in Atlanta, with regional, satellite prosecutors and investigators in Albany and Augusta is seeking another $807,000 to expand with new units in Macon, Columbus and Savannah. Carr is also backing the GOP governor’s budget recommendation to use $1.6 million to boost AG’s attorney salaries as part of a multi-year recruitment and retention plan.
It’s all part of a collaborative approach to targeting gangs that often spread violence in their communities, Carr said.
“Any additional amount will help us and it looks like there’s always going to be a challenge. There is a gap between the public sector and the private sector, but there’s no doubt that it’s helpful,” he said. “What we’ve seen is there are issues and what we want to do is be regional in nature because we know that gangs don’t care where the city lines, where the state lines are from an efficiency standpoint.”
It is becoming increasingly common for people accused of being involved in criminal enterprises like street gangs to be prosecuted under the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which is modeled on the federal racketeering law intended to take down mob operations and other racketeering fronts. Some detractors of the RICO-heavy approach say prosecutors and other law enforcement officials can unfairly ensnare people who are loosely affiliated with individuals connected to the group while still failing to address larger systematic problems.
A 21% drop in Atlanta homicides in 2023 has been attributed by the Atlanta Police Department and Mayor Andre Dickens to an increased focus on fighting guns and gangs, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.
Atlanta rapper Young Thug and members of his record label, Young Slime Life, are facing first-degree murder and drug trafficking charges in Georgia’s most high-profile street gang RICO case to date. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump headlined the 19 individuals indicted in August in Fulton County for allegedly participating in a racketeering conspiracy to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.
Due to handling dozens of gang and racketeering cases over the past year, the state’s public defender’s council is requesting $5.7 million to pay for attorneys with special training in gang and RICO cases.
The additional funding for RICO cases would allow the organization to provide legal representation to people who cannot afford an attorney while also meeting the growing trend of gang-related investigations, according to Omotayo Alli, executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Council.
In the past year, the public defender’s office has handled nearly 70 street gang crime cases, with the number of defendants indicted ranging from six to upwards of 50 under the same overarching charge. Currently, it would cost the public defenders office at least $255,000 to contract enough private attorneys to represent 34 defendants charged in a single RICO case, Alli said.
“It’s been a lot of indictments for gang RICO defendants,” she said at Thursday’s budget committee hearing inside the state Capitol. “We understand that but we have to be able to represent those who have been indicted and arrested.”
The council is also requesting that the upcoming year’s budget have another $937,000 allocated for RICO cases along with another $9.1 million for attorneys salaries as part of the overall agency recruitment and retention programs.
The public defender’s office has been able to increase the starting pay for its attorneys from $45,000 in 2020 to $72,000 this year by consolidating job positions. The budget salary request includes money to boost the starting pay to $83,000 for the upcoming year.
“The attrition rate that we had in the past was quite detrimental, because we train and we lose them. It’s like wasting money,” Alli said. “We’re doing better because you have been considerate of our request.”
The multi-million dollar budget request designated for street gang enforcement caught the attention of Atlanta Democratic Rep. Scott Holcomb on Thursday.
“It would be interesting to see over time if this an aberration or a new trend line on the number of resources that need to be devoted,” he said.
GBI Director Chris Hosey said Thursday that his agency supports the governor requesting nearly $6 million in next year’s budget be used to hire a 14-member GBI gang task force that would be based out of Columbus. The new Columbus gang unit would join other GBI gang units located in Atlanta and Macon to go along with regional gang unit specialists in other pockets of the state.
The increased focus on gangs is also supported by Kemp recommending that the GBI receive a total of $395,000 over the next year to hire criminal intelligence analysts tasked with supporting a street gang database available to other law enforcement agencies throughout the state.
“We have consulted on street gang cases more than 50 times with local partners,” Hosey said. “A lot of the cases we work there is another criminal element to it whether it be homicides, drugs, assaults, human trafficking so the importance of working that and addressing it is paramount to us.”
In addition to the tough-on-crime approach, Carr said research will continue on the most challenging task, which is identifying programs that best divert people from joining gangs.
“How do you stop a young person from joining a gang where at best you end up in jail, at worst you end up dead,” Carr asked. “Who are the communities most often targeted by gangs? Low income, racially diverse and immigrant populations.”
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