A proposal to get tougher on gang-related crimes passed in the House today by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 109 to 4.
The bill’s sponsors believe that it’s a fundamental right of every person to be secure and protected from the fear, intimidation, and physical harm caused by the activities of criminal gangs.
House Bill 138 will enhance penalties for crimes committed in connection with recognizable gang activity. In addition to the standard charges for a particular crime being committed, penalties associated with those crimes will also take into account when it is committed with the assistance, guidance and control of a documented gang.
As of 2012, there were 982 documented gangs operating in over half the counties in North Carolina. An additional 23 gangs were reported as operating within our state’s prison system.
The legislation also comes with a clearer set of terms defining “criminal gangs,” “gang activity,” “gang members” and “gang leaders.”
Besides some enhanced penalties due to a criminal gang connection, some behavior linked to organizing and maintaining gang activity will be given a tougher classification.
Current law calls for gang members charged with a crime to have their charges upgraded to one class higher than the one associated with the original criminal offense. HB138 upgrades charges for gang leaders and organizers to to be upgraded to a felony class level two classes higher than the original felony for which the person was convicted.
Charges related to making threats of punishment or retaliation for leaving a gang will be increased in severity from a Class H felony to a Class F felony. The enhanced charges can bring with them harsher sentencing based on the state’s “Structured Sentencing” program. Structured Sentencing classifies offenders on the basis of the severity of their crime and on the extent and gravity of their prior criminal record. Based on these two factors, structured sentencing provides judges with sentencing options for the type and length of sentences which may be imposed.
Some non-criminal gang activity will still be considered a public nuisance and a court can enter an order against a defendant prohibiting that person from associating with a gang for one year. But HB138 extends the duration of the court order from one year to three years.
The bill had its genesis at a November 28, 2016 meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety’s Subcommittee on Gang Statutes, the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Greg McKee, who was attacked by two gang members at a Cabarrus County rest stop on I-85. Mr. McKee, 43, was left paralyzed from the waist down.
Members of the subcommittee heard months of testimony, including that about Mr. McKee, and regarding the kidnapping of the father of former Wake County prosecutor Colleen Janssen. A Butner Correctional Center inmate, Kelvin Melton, was convicted of arranging from prison Frank Janssen’s 2014 kidnapping as revenge for his earlier conviction for a gang-related shooting. Mr. Melton has been relocated to Colorado’s Supermax federal prison.
HB138 now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Laws addressing the growing phenomenon of gang-related criminal activity were first added to state statutes nine years ago. House Bill 274, sponsored by Representative Mickey Michaux, established the North Carolina Street Gang Suppression Act. That 2008 bill passed in both chambers with only one “No” vote.
According to the Department of Public Safety, “the Criminal Justice Analysis Center (CJAC), in its capacity as the research arm of the Governor’s Crime Commission (GCC), has conducted research and analysis of criminal gang activity in North Carolina for the past 15 years. The first comprehensive statewide assessment of gang activity was published in 2000 with multiple reports since that time, the last being issued in March 2013 under Governor Pat McCrory.
Over the past 20 years, GCC has administered numerous local and statewide grants to combat the presence of criminal gangs by targeting prevention, intervention and suppression, as well as law enforcement and community gang awareness and training initiatives.
To facilitate the tracking and analysis of gangs in North Carolina, NC GangNET was started in 2003 by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office in collaboration with the Durham Police Department and funded through Governor’s Crime Commission grants. NC GangNET is a database that has a web-based capability of allowing certified users to enter and/or view information on gang suspects and members that have been validated as such using standardized criteria.