There is little disagreement in Louisville now that gangs are a problem.
Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad has publicly stated there are between 20 to 30 gangs operating in Louisville. Metro Council President David James has said Louisville has a “gang problem,” and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has said, “You put together drugs and guns and gangs and the lifestyle that goes behind that — that's violence.”
According the FBI's 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, criminal street gangs had about 1.4 million members, roughly 0.5 percent of the total U.S. population. Despite their comparatively small numbers, those gangs were responsible for 48 percent of the violence in most jurisdictions. Research has shown that gang membership increases the likelihood of violence for members – both as offenders and victims. Young men in some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods are bombarded with pressure to join gangs, and sometimes, when one of these young men is brave enough to resist, a volley of nineteen bullets pierce their home in retaliation, as was the case in Lexington this year.
It’s time to do what we know works, and break a cycle that too often ends in one of two places; a prison cell or premature grave. House Bill 169, a gang violence prevention bill that includes criminalizing gang recruitment and enhanced penalties for offenses committed by gang members in furtherance of gang objectives givens needed tools to law enforcement and prosecutors to help combat gang violence.
This bill creates a new felony offense for an adult who recruits a minor under 15 into a criminal gang, and ensures that gang members who commit their crimes for gang purposes serve at least 85% of their sentence, up from just 20 percent now.
Gang enhancements are effective, in part, because of the deterrent effect they provide. Isolating the deterrent effect of a sentence enhancement is tough, but in several instances, researchers have found that sentence enhancements provide somewhere between a five and eight percent deterrent effect, in addition to the incapacitation effect from incarcerating violent gang members. While gang enhancements specifically have not been studied this way, the same principle applies.
Some critics have falsely said that this bill “radically reduces the level of proof needed to claim a person is in a gang.” This bill does no such thing. It requires that in a full hearing after the guilt-phase of a trial, a prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is a gang member. This is the highest standard of proof in our courts. What House Bill 169 does do is update our Prohibition Era definition of gang to include modern activities like social media.
Perhaps most disturbing, Louisville is a city where most of the homicide victims are between 25 and 34, and despite only being 21 percent black, black men make up the majority of homicide victims. Without action, we can expect this destruction to continue. You cannot put a price on human life, but the bill’s anticipated cost of about $2 million a year is a small price to pay to free communities from the invasion of criminal street gangs.
House Bill 169 is a narrowly tailored approach to a serious and growing problem in our city and state, in line with recommendations of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and the right thing to do. That’s why it’s not only supported by law enforcement, prosecutors, and Pegasus Institute, but Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, the Kentucky League of Cities, the Kentucky Association of Counties, and Greater Louisville Inc. Common sense should prevail, and House Bill 169 should become law.
Joshua Crawford leads the Pegasus Institute, a public policy think-tank in Kentucky.
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