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Stronger penalties approved for gangs

If you belong to a gang, now is the time to get out.

Gang members could soon face tough new penalties for participating in any of the hundreds of street gangs that state officials say are committing crime across North Carolina.

The state House and Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved sweeping legislation that brings North Carolina in line with the majority of states that have put specific crimes for gang activity on the books.

The legislation defines what constitutes “criminal street gang activity” and creates several felonies for those who take part in it.

At the same time, the legislation gives a break to youthful offenders. Those under age 16 could not be charged with the new gang-related felonies, and first-time offenders of some of the lesser felonies would have an opportunity to get their convictions expunged if they stayed out of trouble.

“We are going after those individuals who are kingpins, who are leaders and organizers of the gang, but we are also showing some sensitivity to those first-time offenders,” said state Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe said the new law will expand his officers' ability to combat crime through harsher penalties and criminalization of gang recruitment.

“A lot of kids go into gangs based on fear and intimidation,” Monroe said. The new law “allows us in those cases in which we clearly see kids being intimidated to correct some of that.”

Gastonia police Chief Terry Sult said the legislation could prevent a “funneling” of gangs to North Carolina because surrounding states have specific statutes to combat gang activity. He said the legislation will not result in arrests of those just hanging out on street corners because it targets activity, not association.

A call for education, too

Since 2005, lawmakers have been trying to get tough on gangs. The most recent report from the Governor's Crime Commission found more than 550 gangs in the state and nearly 15,000 gang members. The report also said that gangs are just as much a problem in small towns as big cities.

But some are concerned about the expansiveness of the legislation, as well as its emphasis on punishment. The legislation does not specifically make it a crime for someone to be a gang member, but much of what gang members do would cause them to be charged with a felony.

The Rev. Melvin Whitley is the community outreach coordinator for Ebenezer Baptist Church in Durham and serves on the city's crime cabinet and anti-gang task force. He said police and judges need to get gang members off the streets, but lawmakers also need to be more proactive in keeping youths from joining gangs. .

“We're finding more ways to lock them up than we're finding ways to educate them, or to provide resources for them when they come out,” Whitley said.

The Senate unanimously approved the bill by a 45-0 vote, while the House vote was 110-1. As the bill moved quickly through the House and Senate, the chief complaint was that it cut too much of a break for offenders under age 16.

“It seems to me that those provisions ought to allow us to capture some of the younger individuals who, quite frankly, are at the root of these problems,” said Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican.

Questions of cost

The legislation is the punitive part of a carrot and stick approach that lawmakers adopted this session. Last month, they passed a bill that sets up a process to steer state money to communities that have identified how best to provide intervention and prevention programs.

The state budget bill includes $10 million for those prevention programs, but the money would not have been released if the gang penalty legislation languished.

Easley has signed the prevention legislation, but he has not signed the budget bill. The gang penalty legislation now also goes to his desk for his signature.

One question remaining is how the anti-gang push will affect a crowded prison system.

Estimates for an earlier version of the bill showed the new gang- related penalties alone could cost the prison system more than $26 million for additional space and $5 million in operating costs in the first year. The penalties were expected to add nearly 180 inmates in the first year and then 370 or more in successive years. Charlotte Observer staff writer Greg Lacour contributed.

If you belong to a gang, now is the time to get out.

Gang members could soon face tough new penalties for participating in any of the hundreds of street gangs that state officials say are committing crime across North Carolina.

The state House and Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved sweeping legislation that brings North Carolina in line with the majority of states that have put specific crimes for gang activity on the books.

The legislation defines what constitutes “criminal street gang activity” and creates several felonies for those who take part in it.

At the same time, the legislation gives a break to youthful offenders. Those under age 16 could not be charged with the new gang-related felonies, and first-time offenders of some of the lesser felonies would have an opportunity to get their convictions expunged if they stayed out of trouble.

“We are going after those individuals who are kingpins, who are leaders and organizers of the gang, but we are also showing some sensitivity to those first-time offenders,” said state Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe said the new law will expand his officers' ability to combat crime through harsher penalties and criminalization of gang recruitment.

“A lot of kids go into gangs based on fear and intimidation,” Monroe said. The new law “allows us in those cases in which we clearly see kids being intimidated to correct some of that.”

Gastonia police Chief Terry Sult said the legislation could prevent a “funneling” of gangs to North Carolina because surrounding states have specific statutes to combat gang activity. He said the legislation will not result in arrests of those just hanging out on street corners because it targets activity, not association.

A call for education, too

Since 2005, lawmakers have been trying to get tough on gangs. The most recent report from the Governor's Crime Commission found more than 550 gangs in the state and nearly 15,000 gang members. The report also said that gangs are just as much a problem in small towns as big cities.

But some are concerned about the expansiveness of the legislation, as well as its emphasis on punishment. The legislation does not specifically make it a crime for someone to be a gang member, but much of what gang members do would cause them to be charged with a felony.

The Rev. Melvin Whitley is the community outreach coordinator for Ebenezer Baptist Church in Durham and serves on the city's crime cabinet and anti-gang task force. He said police and judges need to get gang members off the streets, but lawmakers also need to be more proactive in keeping youths from joining gangs. .

“We're finding more ways to lock them up than we're finding ways to educate them, or to provide resources for them when they come out,” Whitley said.

The Senate unanimously approved the bill by a 45-0 vote, while the House vote was 110-1. As the bill moved quickly through the House and Senate, the chief complaint was that it cut too much of a break for offenders under age 16.

“It seems to me that those provisions ought to allow us to capture some of the younger individuals who, quite frankly, are at the root of these problems,” said Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican.

Questions of cost

The legislation is the punitive part of a carrot and stick approach that lawmakers adopted this session. Last month, they passed a bill that sets up a process to steer state money to communities that have identified how best to provide intervention and prevention programs.

The state budget bill includes $10 million for those prevention programs, but the money would not have been released if the gang penalty legislation languished.

Easley has signed the prevention legislation, but he has not signed the budget bill. The gang penalty legislation now also goes to his desk for his signature.

One question remaining is how the anti-gang push will affect a crowded prison system.

Estimates for an earlier version of the bill showed the new gang- related penalties alone could cost the prison system more than $26 million for additional space and $5 million in operating costs in the first year. The penalties were expected to add nearly 180 inmates in the first year and then 370 or more in successive years. Charlotte Observer staff writer Greg Lacour contributed.

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