Raleigh, N.C. — House lawmakers voted Thursday to strengthen the state's laws against gang activity after learning that the existing statutes are rarely used by prosecutors.
"North Carolina has a gang problem, and I don’t think anybody in this body would deny that we have a gang problem in North Carolina, and we need to deal with it," sponsor Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, said on the House floor Thursday afternoon.
The current law, enacted in 2006, includes two felony offenses for participating in or profiting from "criminal street gang activity." It identifies a criminal street gang as a group with "three or more members individually or collectively engaged in, or who have engaged in, criminal street gang activity," with "a common name, common identifying sign or symbol."
At the time it was written, lawmakers including then-sponsor Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, debated over whether it could snare innocent bystanders. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors told a House panel Wednesday it's rarely used because it's so broadly written that it could easily be undermined on appeal.
"Since 2006, we've only successfully prosecuted four cases under the old gang legislation," Durham gang reduction strategy manager Jim Stuit told a House Judiciary committee Wednesday, because of its "weak and broad language."
Stuit was part of a law enforcement working group that helped to draft the new bill, which includes a far more extensive list of qualifying identifiers of criminal gang identity and activity and adds a distinction between gang leaders or organizers and rank-and-file members.
Under House Bill 138, criminal gang activity would no longer be a separate crime. Instead, it would become a sentencing enhancement, upping a misdemeanor or felony conviction for a criminal offense by one class if it was committed by a gang member as part of criminal gang activity and two classes if it was committed by a gang leader.
It also increases criminal penalties for threatening or retaliating against anyone who leaves a gang or who helps someone else leave.
Pitt County District Attorney Kimberly Robb spoke in favor of the measure at the committee hearing Wednesday, estimating that 75 percent of the violent crime committed in her county has some connection to gang activity.
"I have been threatened by gang members, my family has been threatened by gang members, simply because of what I do," Robb said. "It's pervasive. We need this legislation. It's not being utilized now."
Michaux, the author of the 2006 statute, voted in favor of the changes on the House floor Thursday, but he criticized the measure for not including any funding for gang intervention or prevention efforts, which he argued is needed to stop the growth of the problem.
Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, agreed that stronger laws are needed but called intervention a "deeper issue," especially in low-income communities.
"We have societal issues now that’s driving this," Graham said. "They’re standing around. They have nothing to do. They can’t find a job. They’re unemployed. They have peer pressure out there. They’re going to go in a lot of cases to that path they’re comfortable with.
"I don’t think any child was born to be a gang member. There’s a reason for it," he continued. "I think we need to get to it and try to intervene and address the issue of what’s pushing these youth to these gangs."
The bill passed 109-4 and is now headed to the Senate.