05/23/08 — Tougher penalties for gangs getting state look

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Tougher penalties for gangs getting state look

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 23, 2008 2:29 PM

With two major pieces of anti-gang legislation having passed the state Senate this week, local law enforcement officials are confident that the General Assembly is headed in the right direction in addressing a growing problem in North Carolina.

Featuring a better definition of a criminal street gang, and tougher penalties for being involved in criminal gang activities, especially for leading them and recruiting new members, as well as the potential for up to $10 million more for agencies such as the Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils, the legislation focuses on prevention, intervention and suppression -- all three of which, local officials say, are necessary to adequately combat the problem.

"Anything they can do to help address it," Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders said, noting, though, that the most important part of the fight is not the suppression of gang activity, but rather the prevention of it.

"I definitely feel those programs can work. Prevention and intervention are the keys," Goldsboro Police Chief Tim Bell said. "There's no way in the world we can arrest our way out of this problem."

And, Winders added, prevention and intervention also are cheaper -- even if it means trying new and different tactics.

"The main thing is if you can deter them from joining gangs," he said. "You don't know the effects of a program until you try it, but (the JCPC) is a good organization. They've done a lot. Any programs they can do to help keep people out of jail..."

Especially, he continued, with prisons already overcrowded.

"Some folks think that you're catering to a certain class of people, that you're baby-sitting and doing programs that aren't needed, but I think anybody with any intelligence, if they they'd sit down and look at all the facts, they'd understand it costs more money to house them," Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, said.

He did say, though, that he is confident both pieces of legislation will pass the House later this session.

However, because of the tougher penalties for gang activity, more people are likely to be going to jail, legislators acknowledged -- a cost they are unsure how they will meet, whether through the $150 million surplus or future borrowing.

"We're at a place where all our prisons are being filled up, but we can't have these people out on the streets," Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, said. "Prisons cost quite a bit of money, but we're just going to have to do the best we can."

And for right now, for Bell and Winders, that's all they can ask for.

"This is a good first step," Bell said.