SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The Georgia Gang Investigators Association's recent survey found criminal street gangs are on the rise, and the state of Georgia has hit a crisis.
The 2017-2018 survey claims 155 of 159 counties in Georgia experience gang activity. It states Chatham County is in the top 10 to 20 percent with 34 active gangs and 876 active gang members reported. The survey states gang activity is responsible for 55 percent of crimes in the county, and there is a gang presence reported in the Savannah Chatham County School System.
The statewide survey shows there are over 71,000 gang members or associates across the state.
"Auto theft, murder, drug activity; any criminal act they can commit, they're gonna commit," said Jose Ramirez, the vice president of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association.
Ramirez said every county surrounding Chatham County also reported gang activity, including Effingham, Bryan, Bulloch, Liberty, McIntosh, and Glynn counties.
Ramirez claims Chatham County has been in denial of this crisis for years because officials thought the stigma of gangs would compromise the most prominent industry in Savannah: tourism.
"I saw firsthand ... what we did was devalue life and value money more," he said.
Statistics in the survey found that gang activity is starting in children as young as 10 years old. Ramirez said many of these kids are recruited to do the dirty work because the charges are much less severe for a juvenile.
"It's very common. We come across more and more young kids than we actually do older adults," Ramirez said. "These gang members know it, so they can recruit these young kids to do that, and the kids are not worried about the consequences."
Ramirez believes a partnership between law enforcement, community leaders, and local government can make some headway.
"I think we can reduce gang activity and the violence. Do I think we'll ever completely wipe it out? I don't ever think so," he said.