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One and Done? Studying the First Step Act’s Lone Anti-Gang Restriction

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“Will the First Step Act protect against the release of gang members?”

The recently enacted First Step Act will speed up the release of federal prison inmates who were convicted of many felonies. Those concerned about public safety therefore want to know: “Will the First Step Act protect against the release of gang members?”  

First Step Act supporters clearly believe that the use of 18 U.S.C. § 521 constitutes the “best practice” when it comes to federally combatting America’s Gang Crisis. For gang members who committed gang-motivated crimes, the First Step Act includes only one specifically identifiable protection. If a defendant was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 521, which increases punishment for gang crimes, that prisoner is ineligible for First Step Act release.

First Step Act supporters therefore appear to conclude that prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 521 is the top federal factor to:

  1. Determine if a crime is gang-motivated;
  2. Establish whether a defendant is a gang member; and
  3. Protect against gangs and gang crime.

First Step Act advocates obviously see 18 U.S.C. § 521 as an effective insurance policy against gangs. This begs a specific question: “How often is 18 U.S.C. § 521 utilized?”

The Georgia Gang Investigators Association (“GGIA”) is moving forward on a study to find answers. GGIA is in the process of making inquiries to federal authorities to determine the number of defendants:

  1. Indicted under 18 U.S.C. § 521;
  2. Convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 521; and
  3. Sentenced under 18 U.S.C. § 521.

GGIA  plans to look for those totals from both the period from January 1, 2018 to January 1, 2019, as well as for the entire time since 18 U.S.C. § 521 was first passed into law.

In publications including Merion West and Insider Advantage, Cobb County Georgia District Attorney Vic Reynolds and his chief gang prosecutor, Mike Carlson, have encouraged employing similar measures to evaluate state and local anti-gang initiatives. District Attorney Reynolds supports GGIA’s pending research: “Utilizing common metrics when assessing anti-gang programs is important. As it does in a host of areas, GGIA is performing an outstanding public service by spearheading this study.”

A 2018 GGIA survey looked into gang numbers in Georgia. The total came to over 71,000 gang members and associates. Federal estimates soon backed GGIA’s findings when the FBI stated that Metro Atlanta itself had 50,000 gang members.

In addition, GGIA’s work gained significant media attention. GGIA’s non-partisan, fact-driven study has been utilized by sources as esteemed as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr.

GGIA and its members dedicate countless hours to training federal, state, and local authorities to protect the public from gangs and gang crime. 18 U.S.C. § 521 is highly placed within the First Step Act, a high-profile piece of federal legislation. GGIA is in hopes that its forthcoming study on the use of 18 U.S.C. § 521 will educate, encourage the exchange of information, and ultimately help lower the threat of gangs and gang crime in Georgia and nationally.

James “Jimmy” Callaway serves as the President of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association and is the Chief of Police for the City of Morrow, Police Department in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Callaway has authored this column in his personal capacity. The views expressed above are the Author’s own and do not necessarily express those of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association or the City of Morrow.

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