Local Politics

Former gang member issues caution about gang legislation

Posted May 21, 2008 10:28 p.m. EDT
Updated May 22, 2008 8:01 a.m. EDT

— As the state Senate on Wednesday approved legislation intended to crack down on gang activity, WRAL asked a former gang member if he thinks the bills will work.

Otis Lyons said he welcomes laws to toughen penalties for gang activity, including recruitment. He says gangs are targeting children as young as age eight.

However, Lyons said people should not expect tougher penalties to deter gang involvement.

"You have got to understand they are naive to the law. They don't even know the bill was passed,” he said.

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 majority of the people that I know are in gangs,” former gang member Otis Lyons said. "I started one of the first gangs in Durham.”

Lyons now works with a group called “Campaign for Change.” It tries to stop young people from making the same mistakes he made.

"I woke up and looked at myself and knew that it wasn't a life that I wanted to continue to live,” he said.

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

"It's a good first step. We'll need to see how it goes,” Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.

Willoughby said the legislation that lawmakers approved does a good job of not overreaching in the definition of a gang.

"It takes more than a red bandanna to make someone in a gang, and I think judges and juries will look at that very closely,” he said.

Willoughby and Lyons agree that laws are not the answer. It is up to communities to help solve the gang problem.

"All of the good gang legislation in the world won't do anything if we don't get the witnesses,” Willoughby said.

"Intervention and prevention. I think that should be done first, and I think that should be done at a very early age,” Lyons said.

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.