MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Legislation targeting gang violence by enhancing penalties for gang members received a favorable report after a debate in an Alabama House committee on Wednesday.
House Bill 191, sponsored by Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, would increase penalties for felonies committed during gang activity, create a minimum sentence for any use of a firearm by gang members and specify people 16 and older can be charged as adults for gang-related offenses.
The bill also creates a statutory definition of a ‘gang member.’
Under existing law, juveniles 16 years of age or older are only tried as adults for certain crimes. This act would require these individuals to be tried as adults for any gang-related criminal activity.
Spending 31 years in law enforcement, Treadaway says the state has seen an increase in gang activity, violent crime and the presence of younger victims and perpetrators.
“It is alarming we are seeing an increase in this kind of behavior,” Treadaway said. “This is a serious approach to that kind of behavior. If we don’t address it, I am afraid crime is just going to keep going up.”
The bill received opposition from Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, Rep. Patrice McClammy, D-Montgomery, and Rep. Ontario Tillman, D-Bessemer, during the committee hearing.
“When we sit here and see children, that’s what they are, children, coming in with an issue, we do not try to address the concern of what we can do to help them,” McClammy said. “Instead of us trying to find partnerships to identify what we can do to help these families and these children, we say, ‘let’s lock them up and throw away the key.’”
The bill spells out how gang members could be identified, including by their own admittance or by another gang member or parent. They could also be labeled a gang member if they meet three of several possible markers, including style of dress, use of gang signs and association with gang members.
Tillman said people shouldn’t be labeled gang members based on the clothes they wear or their relationships. He motioned to move the bill to the criminal subcommittee for further discussion and drafting of amendments. The motion failed.
“I wish I had the answer to society’s ills, but I can tell you this, if we don’t do something with the type of behavior this bill is trying to address, I can assure you we are going to have far more innocent victims dying and hurt,” Treadaway said.
The Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police and the Alabama Sheriffs Association submitted a letter of support for HB191 and the Senate version, Senate Bill 143, to the Legislature on Tuesday. More than 160 sheriffs and police chiefs signed the letter.
“Currently, Alabama has no law on the books to specifically combat or deter gang activity and gang violence,” the letter explains. “Gang violence is a cancer and tough sentences are the antidote.”
Attorney General Steve Marshall called the set of companion bills the Alabama Gang Prevention Act.
“Gang violence has steadily increased over the last decade, but we must refuse to accept it in Alabama. The legislature can help to curb this trend by enacting the Alabama Gang Prevention Act,” Marshall said in a written statement. “Together, we are urging the swift passage of this legislation that will give state and local law enforcement the tools they need to take back our streets.”
Senate Bill 143, sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, was carried over during the Judiciary Standing Committee on Wednesday because of time constraints.
Both join a line of criminal justice-related legislation this session.