‘There is a gang crisis’
Reporters Note: This is part 1 in a two-part series on how local law enforcement and the District Attorneys Office is using Georgia’s violation of street gang terrorism and prevention act to their benefit. The agencies are working together to not only round up gang members, but eradicate the gang crisis in our community altogether.
LaGRANGE — When Rashaad Quantez Garrett, 22, was sentenced to 55 years behind bars March 24 in a Troup County Superior Courtroom, it was a major victory for the Assistant District Attorney’s and prosecutors within the local office of the Coweta Judicial Circuit.
Garrett was convicted on two counts of robbery and for violation of the street gang terrorism and prevention act. Judge Emory Palmer gave the 22 year old the maximum sentence possible for violating Georgia’s gang statute, 15 years in a state penitentiary.
“I know I and Drew Case (assistant district attorney) were just pacing in the office and worrying about what the outcome was going to be,” said Troup County Assistant District Attorney Brett Adams. ” … But the jury came back and said yes, he (Garrett) was a member of a gang, and he was robbing stealing money as part of gang. So we were happy that the judge heard that and gave him the appropriate prison time — the maximum time that Miss (Melissa) Himes asked for — for his crime.”
Adams said Garrett’s trial was the first one up since he and fellow ADA Case attended the Georgia Gang Conference at the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council offices in Morrow.
For three days, prosecutors and law enforcement officers from across the state learned more about Georgia’s gang statute. The bill first took shape in the legislature in the ‘90s, was signed into law in 1998 and was last amended in 2010.
“One of the big things they emphasized is to prosecute gangs as a whole, not just gang members. For instance, with indictments,” explained Adams. “We learned how to better prosecute gang crimes, how to better question gang experts, learn what the statute is all about and how it can benefit us.
“It doesn’t matter how much you know, there’s always something to learn,” he continued. “The conference had tangible benefits.”
Adams joined the Troup County District Attorney’s Office in November. He said he and Case were handed many of the gang cases from previous assistant district attorneys. The two dove in to the stack of cases and discovered they had their work cut out for them.
Adams said the information they learned at the gang conference only solidified what they knew: gangs are an issue in the community and throughout the state of Georgia.
But Adams said the seminar also gave the ADAs more tools on how to better prosecute criminal gang cases based on the Georgia street gang terrorism and prevention statute.
“There is a gang crisis. It’s true,” Adams stated. “But it’s not about scaring people, it’s about educating people. … We’ve already had some gang cases that we thought we didn’t have enough gang evidence. But after the conference, we realized we did have enough evidence. We had the gang signs and colors. So we reassessed a lot of our cases. … We think gangs are serious, we’re placing the gang charge first on our indictments … and learned the best way to phrase things in indictments. … We really didn’t realize the full power of the statute.”
The impact of the gang statute may have more power and strength than the gangs themselves, according to Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Pete Skandalakis. Although, for many people it may not seem that way right now.
“ … I realize criminal street gang activity negatively impacts our neighborhoods, schools and business community,” Skandalakis wrote the Daily News via email. “It is a quality of life issue for our citizens and, therefore, I am devoting the resources I do have in my office to prosecuting these cases. Each case will be evaluated on a case by case basis and we will do our best to curtail gang related crimes by prosecuting those involved. … Obviously, the DA’s office and law enforcement cannot do this alone. We are hopeful community leaders will assist us in taking on these crimes and tackling the issues which lead young people to become involved in gangs.”
LaGrange Public Safety Chief Lou Dekmar agreed.
“The District Attorney’s office and the LaGrange Police Department realized years ago we needed to read over the gang statute and take advantage of all it has to offer,” he said. “Communities have seen a significant increase in gang activity … and of kids being raised by the streets.”
Those are issues LPD’s Special Investigation Unit investigators Sgt. Mark Cavender and Investigator Ray Ham are well aware of.
In Part two, see how gang investigators are using the statute to not only arrest gang members, but their associates too. This series and much more will be in the weekend edition of the LaGrange Daily News.