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Commentary: ‘Gang Violence Prevention Bill’ promotes very activity it’s aimed at stopping

By State Representatives George Brown, Kelly Flood and Susan Westrom
Special to KyForward

There is a saying that if all you have is a hammer, then every problem starts to look like a nail. That certainly seems to be guiding philosophy followed by the sponsors and supporters of House Bill 169, the wrongly named “Gang Violence Prevention Act.” At a time when we need to use the entire toolbox, they hit us over the head with the same three words they think solves everything: Lock them up.

It has been about a decade since states like Texas and South Carolina began moving away from that mantra, and Kentucky was a national leader as well with its reforms in 2011. This data-driven approach proved that you could bring crime rates and costs down at the same time. These smart-on-crime measures truly lived up to their name.

Unfortunately, the “Gang Violence Prevention Act” does not live up to its own. In a cruel irony, no other bill being considered by the General Assembly this year will do more to increase, not prevent, gang violence. That impact will be especially pronounced for people of color, who always seem to pay the highest price whenever legislators in Frankfort or Washington, D.C., compete to see who can be toughest on crime.

This legislation is a poster child for gang recruitment and will only enhance their numbers in our communities and in jails and prisons. Many more adolescents and young adults will be under more pressure than ever to join one for protection.

That was the finding of a 2009 study that reviewed a 1988 California law serving as the foundation for House Bill 169. Its authors wrote that “harsher sentences for minor gang-related crimes may actually increase gang commitment because individuals are forced to join gangs and strengthen their gang ties in order to survive in prison.”

Anyone insinuating that opponents of this approach must somehow favor gang violence present a false choice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is, this bill is wrong for Kentucky on several levels. For one, it is much too broad, essentially using the same definition for gang identification that former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used for obscenity: I know it when I see it.

It reduces minimum gang membership from the long-accepted five members to three and says just two have to have engaged in a pattern of criminal activity during a five-year period. Hand signals, colors, symbols and geographical location are other factors to be considered.

Just as the standards are too vague, the punishments are too harsh. Those who are 18 and older who recruit someone under the age of 15 to be a member of the gang – and require the commission of a crime as the price of admission – could face a Class C felony for a first offense and a Class B for a second one. That is the same level of punishment for our most serious rape and manslaughter charges, and the crimes that define gangs or are used for initiation don’t even have to be violent or drug-related.

House Bill 169 is also wrong because its penalties will fall harshest on people of color. Supporters can tell us all day long that justice is colorblind, but what we see with our own eyes on the streets and in our courts and prisons tells us otherwise. This bill will only further widen that divide.

Supporters don’t flinch when the price tag for this bill is estimated at $19 million or more, but they are the first to cry about budget woes if anyone suggests using the same amount of tax dollars to pay for proven solutions that actually reduce gang violence.

Financial concerns are what stopped this legislation in the state Senate last year, and there are still a few reform-minded legislators who actually understand that there is a better way to reduce gang violence. The hope is that cooler heads will again prevail in the few remaining days of this year’s legislative session.

If that holds true, then maybe, just maybe, that would lead to a dialog in which every interested party is invited to the table to offer their ideas on how best to reduce gangs and their influence on our youth. We took that approach with criminal justice and juvenile justice reforms, so we know it can be done and done well.

Until that happens, we will continue to rally against a bill that unfairly targets people of color while promoting the very activity it seeks to stop. We’re better than that, and we demand nothing less.

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