Will the Proposed New State Anti-Gang Crime Law Make a Difference?

Posted In: Politics, Local,   From Issue 660   By: Mike Thompson

08th May, 2008     0

Tougher penalties for gang-crime perpetrators are a necessary first step, says Roger Kahn, Saginaw's State Senator. 

Others are not so sure about a proposed law that would add up to 20 prison years for felony crimes if gang connections were proven in court.           

The full 20 years rarely would take effect. Those who commit homicides already face maximum penalties. A more typical example is that a proven gang member convicted of major felony assault or selling drugs could receive a sentence of 10 years, perhaps, instead of 5 years.

State Representative Andy Coulouris formerly was a Saginaw County assistant prosecutor under MikeThomas. Both say a specific gang statute, although well intentioned, could add layers of proof burden to a court case.

Neither expresses opposition, but they point to other priorities such as funds for more police officers. Thomas says added money for witness protection would more directly address the issue.

Two veteran Saginaw County Judges air mixed feelings about the new measure.

District Judge Chris Boyd joins Thomas in asserting that enough laws already are in place.
Circuit Judge Fred Borchard agrees that proving gang membership is difficult, but that the new law could provide leverage in plea-bargaining.        

The measure unanimously has passed the Senate, including a vote in favor from Jim Barcia. It now is under discussion in the House, where Representative Ken Horn is a supporter. 

An estimated 25,000 criminal gangs exist in the United States with typical membership of about 30, according the U.S. Department of Justice, which has an Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.       

Estimates of the number of Saginaw gangs have ranged from a handful to upwards of a dozen. Local authorities publicly denied the existence of a major problem until the middle and late 1980s.

Gary Loster, Saginaw mayor at the time and former Buena Vista police chief, helped organize the first countywide Gang Task Force. The team effort now is known as the Saginaw County Safe Streets Task Force.          

Saginaw Police Chief Gerald Cliff, an advocate of the new provisions, says more than half of city homicides are gang-related. He adds that a great deal of the local drug trade is through gangs, and that street activities cause fears among neighbors.
Cliff told the Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee that Saginaw's gang problem, based on statistics, is worse than in Detroit or Flint.       

Gang crimes "contribute to the destruction of the fabric of society," Kahn states. "This legislation will crack down on these outlaws and get them off of the streets."        

The new laws would come during a time when Michigan's prison population has skyrocketed to 50,000, a hike of 400 percent since 1984. The state has built 31 new prisons since then, and the corrections budget of $2 billion now exceeds the sum for higher education.

The Rule of Five
    
Among the first challenges of an anti-gang law, said Prosecutor Thomas, is that the U.S. Criminal Code defines a 'criminal organization' as a group with at least five members. This definition is incorporated into the proposed Senate Bills 291 and 292.      

  "Just to start, if a passenger car is full, the typical number of people inside is four," Thomas says. "It is very difficult to find an occasion in which five different gang members are involved in the same crime."         

Kahn answers the prosecutors would need only prove that the gang has at least five members, not that five members were involved in the same crime.     

"The key is that when gang membership enables an individual in committing a crime, this is where the added sentencing comes in," Kahn says.       

Saginaw's most notorious recent homicide was the death of 14-month-old Stacy
Evans Jr
., killed in a hail of gunfire in March 2007 at Norman Street and North Outer Drive.       

Thomas notes that among those he prosecuted, three young men face lifelong prison on convictions of first-degree murder. Two others received second-degree convictions.        

"That was a classic example of gang-type activity, but I do not see where (a new gang law) would have made any difference in how we proceeded," Thomas says. 

Coulouris expressed similar sentiments to an audience of Saginaw's Covenant Neighborhood Association.          

"It would be incredibly difficult if not impossible, 99 out of 100 times, to try someone - much less convict someone - of being a member of a gang," Coulouris told the audience.      

"I'm not in here just to pass legislation that gets headlines, but that accomplishes nothing."         

Kahn answers that he acted not on his own, but in response to pleas from police associations and judges.       

"These laws will not just stand alone," he answers. "They will provide an additional tool for prosecutors and judges. If we put up roadblocks over the definition of a gang, then we will never get anything done."    

Representative Horn says a key factor is that gangs "go beyond crimes of passion" and plan their actions, all the way up to "cold-blooded homicides and other violent acts."
"I recognize the concerns of prosecutors regarding a burden of proof for gang membership, but these are cases which are already being prosecuted. The new laws give prosecutors the option of taking that extra step," Horn says.          

"This sets a tone and makes a statement that we are going after these gang members. We want to make the bad guys more afraid of us than they are of each other."

Judges Air Views

Judge Borchard agrees with Thomas and Coulouris regarding the difficulty of proving gang membership, but reaches a different conclusion on the proposed state law.     

"You don't get other members of a gang testifying against one of their own, unless it's to save their own necks," Borchard says. "However, this can be an effective tool in plea bargaining between the defense and prosecution. The alternative of doing nothing is not acceptable. It does provide for another possibility to what we already have."         

Judge Boyd, former county prosecutor, says that plea-bargaining would create an added complication rather than a path toward stronger punishment.      

"Similar get-tough state legislation during the 1980s withered away because of the roadblocks in proving a definition of a gang crime," Boyd says.     

He notes additionally that Michigan's 1995 Continuing Criminal Enterprise Law allows prosecutors to seek tougher sentences, similar to the 1970 federal statute known as RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.         

"I suggest that perhaps laws are already in place to punish gang activity," Boyd said, "and the real problem is lack of funding to put enough police officers on the streets to enforce existing laws."        

Thomas has called not only for more officers, but also for more prosecutors. He adds that witness protection funds are lacking, which is a major barrier because gang members often fear their peers more than they fear the cops and the courts.      

 For teenage and young adult gang members, a "chicken and egg" type of debate exists. The National Juvenile Justice and Prevention Coalition opposes stronger anti-gang laws, asserting that longer sentences simply cause young prisoners to learn more about criminal behavior. On the other hand, Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Pat Meter of Saginaw Township asserts that these prisoners already are major criminals in the first place.        

"Gang members have a recidivism rate of over 80 percent," Meter told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "These guidelines would allow the Department of
Corrections to retain individuals for longer than normal, and the longer they are retained, the better."

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