Legislature passes anti-gang measure

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

RALEIGH (AP) ó An anti-gang plan backed by law enforcement officials and a host of North Carolina mayors, including Salisbury Mayor Susan Kluttz, was overwhelmingly approved by the House and Senate Tuesday.
The measure, which now heads to Gov. Mike Easley’s desk for signature, would increase the punishments gang members would face. Supporters said removing gang members from the community will interrupt gang activity.
“It’s another tool on the tool belt, but I do think it’ll be an effective tool,” said Gastonia Police Chief Terry Sult.
Under the plan, the penalties for many gang crimes, including drive-by shootings, would be increased. The legislation also ratchets up the punishments for gang members who try to get minors to join or who threaten people who try to leave gangs.
Minors under the age of 16 would not be eligible for the increased penalties.
Kluttz served with Durham Mayor Bill Bell on a special subcommittee of the N.C. Metropolitan Coalition, comprised of mayors from the state’s 25 largest cities. With their leadership, the coalition held a series of meetings with the attorney general, Senate brass and various groups which had expressed concerns about the legislation.
They also held numerous events and press conferences calling on the Legislature to act.
“We are going after those individuals who are kingpins, those individuals who are the leaders and the organizers of the gang,” said sponsor Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenberg. “But we are also showing some sensitivity to those youthful offenders. It’s a balanced approach. It makes good sense.”
The bill also offers people convicted of a gang-related misdemeanor or felony when they were under the age of 18 an opportunity to have the charge removed from their criminal record. To have the charge erased, offenders would have to remain conviction-free for two years and show the court they’re staying out of trouble.
While asking lawmakers to approve the plan, Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, questioned why the bill provided so many protections for minors, noting that young offenders are at the root of the state’s gang problem. A March report by the Governor’s Crime Commission found there were more than 14,500 gang members in North Carolina.
“It is a step in the right direction,” Berger said. “It, unfortunately, is not the step that goes as far as we ought to go.”
The measure ó approved on a 110-1 House vote and 45-0 Senate vote ó is another piece of major legislation lawmakers can check off their to-do list as they look to adjourn by the end of this week.
The measure represents a compromise plan that was hashed out by a conference committee. That panel was assembled in May after the House rejected the Senate’s draft of the bill, which had removed several of the protections for youth offenders.
Dozens of law enforcement officials and mayors urged lawmakers to approve the penalties plan. The local leaders cited gangs’ mounting presence in their communities as proof that the state needed to crack down on gang members and provide for intervention programs.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory on Tuesday lauded lawmakers for approving the penalties bill but said more must be done to stamp out gang activity. The GOP gubernatorial candidate, who has made anti-gang measures a platform in his bid for the office, said the state must increase funding to juvenile detention centers.
“Right now, so many of the young kids are released as soon as they’re caught … because there are so few detention beds,” McCrory said. “We’re talking about 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds who are caught, and you can’t send them to jail, but you need to remove them from the environment.”
Lawmakers set aside $10 million in the state budget they sent to Easley to pay for the measure.
Earlier this month, Easley signed into law a plan directing county and state Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils to assess the needs of juveniles who are at-risk of joining gangs. The councils will also review gang activity and report their findings to the state.
“It’s a three-legged stool,” Bell, the Durham mayor, said. “You need intervention, prevention and suppression.”
Sult, the police chief, said there’s no “silver bullet” for stopping gangs, but that he’s optimistic that the state’s three-pronged approach will reduce gang crime and activity.
“We were like a funnel for gangsters to come into our area and have free rein,” Sult said. “The reality is, now we have a good, balanced approach to fighting gangs.”