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House passes stronger gang prosecution law

ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates passed legislation on Tuesday to make it easier to prosecute gang members and stiffen penalties against them.

The House voted 111-28 to close loopholes in the Gang Prosecution Act of 2007, which prosecutors say hasn’t worked because the law is too loosely defined to battle gang crime in the state. The current law has resulted in only one guilty plea and not one conviction by a jury in nearly three years.

The bill adds crimes that would make gang members eligible for stronger penalties, including witness intimidation, second-degree assault, wearing or carrying a handgun, running a house of prostitution and human trafficking.

The measure dictates two circumstances that would require a judge to order additional prison time, including any crime that results in a victim’s death or a second offense committed on behalf of a gang. The length of a longer sentence would be at the discretion of the judge, ranging from one day to up to 10 years.

The bill also creates a new gang kingpin statute, which would make the managing, financing or organizing of a gang punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Critics, including public defenders, the NAACP and the ACLU, say the legislation would create grounds for overly broad prosecutions that could end up incarcerating youths who aren’t guilty of the serious crimes the measure is designed to stop.

“It has many unintended consequences for an innocent youth,” said Delegate Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, D-Baltimore County.

But Delegate Gerron Levi, D-Prince George’s, emphasized that prosecutors will have to establish that the crime was committed by a gang of three or more people. Prosecutors also will have to show that the gang is engaging in a pattern of criminal activity.

“The people want us to take our streets back,” said Delegate Jay Walker, D-Prince George’s. “They don’t want us to take our streets back three years from now. They want the streets back now.”

Supporters of stronger laws against gang members cite the case of a federal witness named Carl Lackl, who was murdered in 2007 in Maryland by a 17-year-old trying to earn initiation into a gang.

Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy, said some provisions that prosecutors wanted have been stripped out, including language that would have standardized gang identification across the state. Still, she said it has some good tools for prosecutors.

“We see the glass as half full,” Burns said.

The bill now heads to the Senate.