Local Politics

Senate OKs crackdown on gangs

Posted May 21, 2008 12:49 p.m. EDT
Updated May 21, 2008 8:06 p.m. EDT

— The state Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation that its sponsors hope will crack down on gang activity in North Carolina.

North Carolina is one of the few states nationwide without laws that deal specifically with gangs, and state officials estimate 15,000 gang members operate in the state – roughly equivalent to the number of National Guard members statewide.

The Street Gang Prevention Act would increase penalties for gang members charged with crimes – actions that now are misdemeanors would become felonies, for example – and would make recruiting youths into gangs a crime in itself.

The Senate passed its own version of the bill, as well as the House version, which passed that chamber a year ago. Both bills now go back to the House for final approval.

"If we can focus on prevention and helping our youth stay in school and out of trouble, we can go a long way toward eradicating the presence of gangs in our state," said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1358.

Craig Brown, a recently retired district court judge in Durham, two months ago called for lawmakers to put anti-gang legislation on the fast track following the deaths of Eve Carson, the student body president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Abhijit Mahato, a Duke University graduate student.

Police haven't said whether either slaying was gang-related, but Brown said the state needed to address what he saw as a growing wave of violent crimes in North Carolina.

Mayors and police officers from across the state gathered in Raleigh Wednesday morning to lobby for passage of the bill.

"It's critical we pass this legislation in order to make sure we send the message that we're not going to tolerate gang activity in North Carolina," Attorney General Roy Cooper said.

"Having it done on the state level, in my opinion, sends a very important signal that the community – the state – is not going to tolerate gang influence," Durham Mayor Bill Bell said.

"The issue we're dealing with here is about saving our youth," Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy said. "It's called gang legislation, but what it's about is saving the youth of North Carolina and preserving the cohesiveness of communities across this state."

In addition to the criminal penalties, the bill would provide state money for gang prevention programs at the county level. Finding the money in the state budget is a primary sticking point in the Senate, but state Rep. Micky Michaux, D-Durham, said the prevention programs are the real benefit of the legislation.

"It's not the punitive measures in there that count as much as the intervention, suppression and prevention," said Michaux, who sponsored House Bill 274. "If we don't grab this thing initially, it's going to really proliferate throughout the state."

"It's not going to be a silver bullet. There are no silver bullets," Gastonia Police Chief Terry Sult said. "It takes a community to come together and handle these situations. We're all standing here together saying we're ready to fight the fight."

In other legislative news Wednesday:

Toll roads

With unmanned toll roads on the horizon, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would set the fine for skipping out on tolls at $100 each time. The House bill would also provide for a collection fee of up to $20.

School buses

Also at the General Assembly on Wednesday, lawmakers considered a bill that would exempt school buses from state-required safety inspections. Current inspections only look at 10 percent of a school system's fleet.

Autopsies

Several state lawmakers want to help the medical examiner's office finish autopsies more quickly. A bill filed Thursday would provide nearly $1.5 million to increase staff at the office. The goal is to reduce autopsy times to 45 days at most.