January 27, 2018 10:15:24 PM
JACKSON -- Gang members would get longer prison terms under a bill moving forward in the Mississippi House, although the effectiveness of similar strategies in other states has been questioned.
The House Judiciary B Committee voted Friday to send House Bill 541 to the full House for more debate, a move that could ultimately require five to 15 additional years in prison for any proven gang member convicted of a felony. Prisoners couldn't be released early from the extra sentence.
The measure also would designate any gang-related crime as a violent offense, meaning offenders would have to serve half of their sentences in prison before becoming eligible for parole, instead of a quarter of that time. Other provisions would bar sentence reductions for gang-related crimes.
Law enforcement officials say a recent report indicating that police have found gangs in all 82 of Mississippi's counties shows the need for the measure. The report found that three gangs -- the Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords and Simon City Royals -- have a statewide presence. The Mississippi Department of Corrections says 62 percent of state prison inmates are active gang members.
"We have a severe problem, and we need to address it," Jimmy Anthony of the Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators told the committee.
Although district attorneys are the prime force behind the bill, state Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher also supports it.
"Most of the major organized crime investigations going on in the state right now have a gang nexus to them," Fisher said.
An earlier version of the bill had also sought to force people convicted of gang-related misdemeanors to serve an additional five years in prison, but House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson said Friday that he's dropping that proposal. The Braxton Republican said he hopes prosecutors will be able to use the bill to convict people who lead gangs.
"They catch the little guy, but he's not going to turn over on his brothers," Gipson said. He said prosecutors can use the bill as "a major hammer."
Although Mississippi lawmakers moved to shorten some prison terms, Gipson said he thought that effort helped to clear prison space for violent criminals.
The measure also lets officials and individuals file civil suits against gangs to close down or seize property they use and fine owners. Officials could sue gangs to recover public money spent on policing or seize their guns.
Civil liberties groups oppose the law, warning that its standards for proving who's a gang member are too low.
"The bill has the potential to be used disproportionately against young African-American and Latino men who are not gang members," said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi. "This sort of racial profiling has been the inevitable result in other communities that have passed similar anti-gang laws."
Nicole Porter of the Sentencing Project said research has showed mandatory sentences have little effect on preventing crime.
"There's some misguided idea that long sentences would deter gang involvement or be a signal to gangs that their crimes would be handled toughly," she said.
Porter's group seeks alternatives to prison and she suggested that intervening with young people or heading off conflicts between gangs would be more effective.
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