“Criminal Street Gang” legislation is the wrong direction for Rhode Island

Hudson Police Department Holding CellWell meaning but dangerously inept legislation has a bad habit of passing in the General Assembly in the eleventh hour and this year is no exception as both the House and the Senate passed an amendment to the general laws that adds “up to ten years of extra jail time for any person convicted of a felony (which now includes a third offense of graffiti), if that person is subjectively determined to be part of a ‘criminal street gang,’ or three or more people who have an identifiable sign, color, or symbol.”

The actual language of the bill defines membership in a street gang subjectively, giving judges and juries wide latitude in determining membership, which might entail an additional decade of jail time:

Criminal street gang” means an ongoing organization, association, or group of three (3) or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal or delinquent acts; having an identifiable name or common identifiable signs, colors or symbols; and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity.

Further, one does not have to be a member of the “street gang” for these penalties to apply. “Any person” convicted of a felony  that is “ knowingly committed for the benefit, at the direction of, or in association with any criminal street gang or criminal street gang member” can be subject to these increased penalties. The ACLU concludes that “As a result, the bill’s greatest impact could be on young people coerced into engaging in criminal conduct on behalf of a gang.”

This bill does nothing to reduce the number of young people who voluntarily join or are coerced into joining a gang. It’s hard to imagine a kid, aged 12-17, being dissuaded from gang violence because of this legislation. All this legislation does is further criminalize the difficult lives of urban youth, predominantly youth of color. This bill was part of a package of bills coming out of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office and the subjective nature of the definition used in determining gang membership will certainly lead to abuse at the hands of state prosecutors.

We don’t need more penalties. We need more intervention. Too often the General Assembly tackles a problem through expensive, wasteful and dehumanizing incarceration rather than through humanistic intercession.

We can be better than this legislation. We can tackle the problem of gangs and gang violence without destroying lives in our most vulnerable communities.

I am urging Governor Chafee to veto this legislation, so that the General Assembly can go back to the drawing board and craft an appropriate response to the problems of gang violence. Please join me in sending a clear message to the Governor and our legislators. We want legislation that helps, not hurts, our kids.

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Twitter: @SteveAhlquist

Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

His photos and video are usable under the Creative Commons license. Free to share with credit.

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