House votes for tougher gang law

Similar measure advances in Senate

April 07, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

The House of Delegates approved a measure Tuesday designed to get tough on gangs - over the opposition of black and Hispanic delegates from urban areas who worried it would be overreaching.

Later in the day, a Senate committee voted for another version of the measure. If that passes the full Senate, the two chambers must work out their differences before Monday's end of the legislative session.

Lawmakers and law enforcement officials have worked for months on a way to expand anti-gang legislation enacted about two years ago, after prosecutors complained it was unwieldy and had barely been used.

Both measures moving through the General Assembly would enable judges to give longer prison sentences to gang members convicted of certain crimes.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a Montgomery County Democrat, said the Senate plan "dramatically expands" the set of crimes that trigger increased penalties.

It also broadens the definition of "gang activity" that prosecutors can use to prove gang membership, Frosh said.

The House rewrote its bill after listening to some concerns of civil liberties groups and public defenders, who remain opposed to it, bill supporters said. For example, the statute would be used only if someone "knowingly" participates in a gang-related crime.

Still, Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Montgomery County Democrat, warned that the anti-gang measure is "bad public policy" because it is "criminalizing kids."

Del. Aisha N. Braveboy, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the bill "brings in people who may or may not be associated with a crime."

The bill's sponsor, Del. Gerron S. Levi, a Prince George's Democrat, called those concerns baseless.

"It does not punish 'association,' " Levi said. She argued that the new statute would limit the extended sentences to someone who is convicted of a crime, a proven gang member, and either has killed someone or committed two gang-related offenses.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said prosecutors made "great progress" this year on legislation that has failed in the past few years. She had not seen the Senate version but said the House plan is "not everything we wanted, but pretty good."

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