/Anti-gang bill gets new life in state Legislature but some lawmakers fear far-reaching consequences

Anti-gang bill gets new life in state Legislature but some lawmakers fear far-reaching consequences

The Senate Judiciary B Committee voted to approve S.B. 2459 Tuesday. The bill establishes a legal definition of “criminal gang activities” and separates crimes that are committed under this definition. The proposed law could lead to three to fifteen years imprisonment for people convicted. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula), said that the proposed law is similar to embezzlement and just like burglary. S.B. 2459 would include acts such as: 2459 would define “criminal Gang Activity” as acts that are: Similar bills have been defeated in recent years, after criticisms that such legislation would allow law enforcement too much discretion when identifying gangs and would lead to racial profiling, which would not prevent crime. The testimony of Jimmy Anthony, vice-president of Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators, was used by lawmakers this year. Anthony made a presentation earlier in the month following a rash of gang-related violence that centered mainly at Parchman State Penitentiary. Gov. Tate Reeves believes that gang activity is responsible for some of the current problems in state prisons. Anthony presented data to legislators that was limited to historical data from Mississippi Department of Corrections which showed the number of people the agency identified as gang members. However, the bill would also include gangs operating outside of prisons. Some lawmakers raised concerns about the bill’s impact and requested more data on the state’s gang activity. Barbara Blackmon (D-Canton), Vice-chair of the committee, suggested that there are already options to prosecute gang members. These include MDOC’s internal investigation division and the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act. Anthony replied, “The purpose is to stop violence here in the state, stop them using our children, to give the people the chance to get out a gang,” Senator Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, asked about the impact of the bill on MDOC, citing a 2014 criminal justice reform package. It was aimed at reducing incarceration costs, and decreasing the state’s prison population. The legislation would make “criminal Gang Activity” a crime of violence and those convicted would not be eligible to receive parole or other early-release programs. Senator Angela Burks Hill (R-Picayune) stated that “we let so many people out,” and it should be a wash. Simmons stated that he was concerned about the subjective standards used by law enforcement agencies to validate gangs. He also expressed concern that those who are involved in crimes already defined in statute could be criminalized further under the proposed law. Simmons believes that the bill would increase prison populations and result in longer sentences. Simmons stated, “If there is a gang problem here in Mississippi, what can we do to…discourage people from being associated with gangs and not criminalize their right to associate?” A bill to expand parole eligibility for more prisoners was also approved by the committee. The House has introduced a similar bill to address penalties for gang activity.