Sunday, May 4, 2008

Florida lawmakers aim to eliminate gangs

The House and Senate passed a bill that will dole out harsher penalties.
Walter Pacheco

Sentinel Staff Writer

May 3, 2008

State lawmakers are taking a bite out of gangs by imposing harsher sentences, including life in prison for gang members; felony charges for communicating over the Internet and preventing gang members from bailing out and threatening witnesses.

The anti-gang bill, unanimously approved by the House on Thursday and previously by the Senate, is headed to Gov. Charlie Crist, who has said he will sign the bill into law.

The measure is good news for Central Florida law-enforcement officials who have counted about 6,000 gang members in the region -- or 10 percent of the state's 65,000 documented gang members.

"Frankly, this is earth-shattering legislation," Polk Sheriff Grady Judd said. More than 3,000 gang members and 40 criminal gangs call Polk County home, according to Sheriff's Office records. "The message is that we are not going to tolerate gang activity in this state. We are going to send gang members to prison for a very long time and keep them there."

Attorney General Bill McCollum, along with co-sponsors Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, and Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, proposed the bill in January, a week after a state grand-jury report showed gang membership and violent crime associated with gangs had increased in Florida.

Drug stings led by the Orange County sheriff's SWAT team in March and April netted 33 gang members who were trafficking cocaine. Many of those arrested were linked to homicides, home invasions, criminal racketeering and armed robbery across the state, records show.

"This really serves as a tool that not only enhances our powers in preventing gangs, but allows us to roll out a more complete strategy in the future," McCollum said.

The attorney general said he plans to unveil an anti-gang task force next month that will bring together community and law-enforcement leaders from across the state, as well as prosecutors, to create plans of action, including the collection of data on criminal gangs.

One of the key elements of the measure keeps gang members who are arrested for committing a crime in jail without bail until their initial appearance.

Statewide prosecutor Bill Shepherd said witness tampering has been an ongoing problem when it comes to prosecuting gang-related cases.

"Instead of bailing out through some formulaic standard bond system and threatening a witness, they now have to remain in jail until a judge hears the case at initial appearance," Shepherd said.

Additionally, gang "kingpins" who organize and lead criminal gang activities could face first-degree felony charges punishable by up to life in prison.

The bill considers communicating through social networking Web sites, such as MySpace and Facebook -- a popular trend among budding gangs -- a third-degree felony.

In recent years, gangs have bypassed traditional communication by turning to online sites to share photos, meeting information and planning criminal activities.

"Gangs are not only recruiting members through the Internet, but they are also committing white-collar crimes online, such as identity theft, fraud and Internet scams," McCollum said.

Officials at McCollum's office said a video titled Gangstas 'N Thugs circulated on the Internet in 2007 and showed gang members robbing and beating people.

"When you take away any organized group's ability to share information, you take away their power," Judd said. "The only thing missing from this measure is charging gang members with a third-degree felony for breathing."

Walter Pacheco can be reached at or 407-420-6262.

No comments: