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Bill targeting gang activity passes Legislature

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Legislation that would impose sentence enhancements for individuals convicted of certain crimes who are also found to be a member of a criminal enterprise saw near unanimous approval in the Alabama House Thursday and was sent to Gov. Kay Ivey.

The bill initially faced strong opposition on the House floor from Democrats, many of whom pointed to the bill as an example of the state embracing criminal justice policies that “just lock ‘em up and throw away the key without addressing the real concerns,” as said by Rep. Patrick Sellers, D-Pleasant Grove.

Sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, Senate Bill 143 would impose sentence enhancements for a wide range of crimes committed by someone identified as being a member of a gang or criminal enterprise.

Sentence enhancements include Class A felony convictions carrying a minimum 25-year sentence if the convicted is a member of a gang, or a minimum seven-year sentence were a firearm brandished during any criminal act that furthered the interest of a gang.

To be considered a member of a gang or a criminal enterprise under the proposed law, an individual would have to meet at least three of ten qualifiers, qualifiers that include having a tattoo “identified as used by a criminal enterprise,” dressing in “the style of dress of a criminal enterprise,” or using hand signs “identified as used by a criminal enterprise.”

The bill also requires juveniles 16 years and up to be tried as an adult for any gang-related activity, and lists a number of additional sentence enhancement scenarios.

‘We’re talking about serious crime here’

Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, sponsor of the House version of the legislation, said on the House floor that the bill had been endorsed by 65 of the 67 sheriffs in the state and more than 100 police chiefs.

“This bill would give law enforcement the needed tools to deal with the expansion of criminal enterprises dealing with gangs that are popping up all over the state of Alabama,” Treadaway said.

“There need to be crimes on the books to go after those folks and have consequences much more serious than what we currently have. We’re talking about serious crime here, not low-hanging fruit with misdemeanors and things like that, we’re talking about murder, rape, drug trade… those types of crimes. If involved in that, and it’s established that you are involved in one of these criminal enterprises, there’s (sentence) enhancements there.”

Several Democrats spoke out against the bill on the House floor. Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, said the bill would “not stop a gang and criminal activity.” Democratic Rep. John Rogers, also of Birmingham, said the bill “goes a little bit too far,” and Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, argued that in working with troubled youth herself, gang activity was the product of a troubled home life, something the increased penalties the bill introduces fails to address.

Rep. Patrick Sellers, D-Pleasant Grove, speaks out against the “gang bill” on the House floor.

The House went on to approve the bill in a near unanimous vote of 95-6.

Following the bill’s passage, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who has publicly supported the bill since its inception, spoke to the need of additional tools for law enforcement to deal with gang activity, which, according to the National Gang Center, has increased in the state over the past decade, and exists in 74% of Alabama communities.

“We’ve got to be able to attack the problem, and what we’ve seen is organized activity throughout our state contributing to the loss of life and significant property crimes,” Marshall said. “This is a way to be able to aggressively deal with it; we think it’s going to be successful, and we’ve seen other states be able to do the same thing.”

Marshall also defended the provision in the bill that would mandate those 16 and up be charged as an adult if convicted of certain crimes as a member of a gang, arguing that law enforcement has “seen a significant decrease in the age of those who come together for criminal purposes.”

The bill initially faced strong opposition when first introduced in a House committee back in April, particularly from Rep. Patrice McClammy, D-Montgomery, who took issue with the term “gang.”

The bill was later amended, replacing “gang” with “criminal enterprise,” a change that received positive feedback from McClammy, and ultimately other House Democrats.

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