Jan. 7—ALBANY — When Georgia lawmakers return to the Gold Dome on Monday for the start of the 2023 legislative session, some of the usual suspects will be on the list of priority issues. And for this year, one of the biggest is crime.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, violent crimes spiked, particularly in larger cities across the state and the country. But small towns are not immune to both violence and property crimes.
"It has become pervasive through the state, especially in those neighborhoods that are very poor and in our urban communities and our rural communities," state Sen. Freddie Powell Sims said. "We have seen crime spike in surprising areas."
The Dawson Democrat said she is glad that Gov. Brian Kemp and incoming Lt. Gov. Burt Jones have made the issue a priority.
Locally, Dougherty County and the rural counties in Sims' District 12 need help to bolster the number of prosecutors and public defenders needed to efficiently move cases through the court systems so that criminals can be convicted and imprisoned so they don't linger on the street to continue preying on residents, she said.
Dougherty County also is in line for a fourth Superior Court judge, and approving and funding that position could help in adjudicating cases more quickly.
"We also have the white collar crimes," Sims said. "It's not just the low-level gang-banger we're dealing with. We're also having to prosecute people who are very sophisticated in what they do."
The state also needs to invest in hiring additional personnel for the "swamped" Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime laboratories that examine and process evidence for use in criminal prosecutions, said state Rep. Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert.
"We find that there will be a great emphasis on crime," he said of the upcoming legislative session. "We've had more shootings of police officers this year than ever before. The violent crimes are up in rural and urban areas."
One area that illustrates the need for more personnel is in forensic pathology. Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler has noted in recent interviews that it can take days before a crime lab can accept a body for autopsy in cases of a suspected drug overdose and months to get those results back.
"There's no closure for a lot of these families," Greene said. "I agree with Mr. Fowler; we've got to do something there."
Like Sims, Greene said he supports the additional judge for the Dougherty County Circuit, whose three judges were rated by a state committee as having the most cases among all circuits in the state.
Greene and Sims are both retired educators, and they agreed that education funding is another priority at the top of the list for the southwest Georgia delegation for 2023.
The governor recently announced his wish to earmark millions of dollars in federal COVID relief money to rural broadband access, which will help schools as well as small companies and residents in areas that do not have access to high-speed internet service, Greene said.
The state also needs to look at the "lost learning" that occurred during the pandemic, when students were receiving instruction at home when schools were closed, Sims said. Another related issue is children who lost parents and guardians to the disease whose lives have been thrown into chaos.
"The governor has in the budget for last year $2 million to pay for tutorial programs, to pay for these programs (in which) the tutors go into the schools along with the teachers," Sims said.
"We're also concerned about the health care for these children, and that health care also encompasses mental health after dealing with the loss of a parent or other loved ones. We also need to look at school security, safety protocols that are going to protect students as much as we can. We need to be able to involve our parents in planning for safer schools, especially dealing with gun safety."
Sims said she also would like to see more funding for additional slots in pre-K programs, as those students have been shown to enter first grade at a level one or two years ahead of students who do not attend the programs. Another need is linking students to wrap-around programs to provide services that will help them to be better students in school.
Locally, economic development is big on the wish list for resources, and for Greene a key component is transportation. He has introduced initiatives to extend I-185 from its terminus in Columbus to the Florida line and a similar project for state Highway 300.
"We're trying to put some money into the rural areas, because they really need it," he said. "Albany needs a lot of money in infrastructure."
In addition to that, the region needs a mindset that includes customer service and making communities attractive, by such things as keeping the grass cut and litter picked up, that will make it more attractive to industrial site searchers, Sims said.
"We need to find the good things to be talking about in our communities, not just the negative things," she said. "We need to make sure our city (Albany) looks safe and attractive. We should be the cleanest, the prettiest city in southwest Georgia.
"People are looking to put businesses every day. They are not going to put businesses in places that are blighted, that are unattractive."
One request from the Albany City Commission for 2023 is the establishment of two community investment districts in Albany, one in the area of the Albany Mall and the second on Slappey Boulevard.
"If they're all on board, we'll look at those issues," Greene said. "CIDs are very difficult to do. They are very difficult to pass."
For legislative newcomer David Sampson, who was elected to a first term in November, the session will be one for learning.
"Going in, the first thing is I need to make sure I understand the process and how things really work," he said. "Secondly, being a junior elected official, I don't want to make any waves. It's almost like you need to be seen but not heard, but at the same time letting people know you are there.
"You want to make sure you're focusing, focusing, focusing on building relationships, and hopefully finding some people with like goals."
While Sampson said he is not sure of what committee assignments he will have, one of his interests is in improving housing in Albany. Sampson is the only one of the four state representatives who represent Dougherty County whose district is entirely within the county and also the only Democratic representative among the local delegation, which also includes Reps. Mike Cheokas of Americus and Bill Yearta of Sylvester.
"Obviously, housing is one I will be interested in," he said. "I will be interested in education. A lot of this is predicated on what committees you are assigned to."