Politics & Government

Georgia bill targets contraband cell phones

ATLANTA -- It's been a busy year for cracking down on cell phones in Georgia's lockups.

The scope of the cases range from ones such as the January arrest of a Macon law firm's paralegal on charges of smuggling a cell phone to a Macon-Bibb County inmate to bigger ones such as the dozens of federal indictments announced over the past few months for corruption in Georgia's prisons. Some of those cases include allegations of smuggling phones to inmates and inmates using those phones to run fraud schemes.

Now Georgia's lawmakers are considering new mandatory minimum penalties for crimes involving contraband cell phones.

Georgia needs to "regain control" of its lockups, said state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, sponsor of House Bill 874. The bill makes several changes to the state's gang statute, but two key sections target contraband phones.

One would make it a felony to smuggle a phone into a prison or jail, punishable by two years to 10 years in prison. A second part of the change would make using a contraband cell phone for gang activity a felony that's punishable by two to 20 years of prison.

Reeves said state laws are not strong enough to deter people from smuggling cell phones or to keep inmates from using them to run their gangs.

"We're trying to put real teeth in the statute," he said.

Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said contraband phones are "a pervasive problem in all jails and prisons."

In roughly the past year, the sheriff's office has confiscated about a dozen phones in the county jail and arrested and terminated several staff for contraband, Davis said.

Davis said usable cell phone jamming technology is probably a few years off. Right now, blockers would blanket an area that's too large, possibly interfering with radios and stopping public calls outside.

But the bill has attracted critics.

State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, and other Democrats said mandatory minimum sentences take away judges' flexibility.

The individuals targeted by the bill are dangerous, but the bill "takes us back to the days where we just decided to lock people up," Wilkerson said during debate in the House last month.

He and others said mandatory minimums conflict with several years' worth of major Georgia criminal justice changes that are meant to ensure hard time for dangerous criminals but more chances for others to mend their ways. Some of those bipartisan changes have moved state law away from mandatory minimums, giving courts the flexibility to approve plea deals or lesser sentences in some cases.

The House approved Reeves' bill in a roughly party-line vote, with Republicans in favor of it. A Senate committee approved a similar version March 14. It's in the Senate Rules Committee awaiting a chance at a full Senate floor vote next week.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail mlee@macon.com.