Politics & Government

Gang crackdown bill advances. Opponents say it will unfairly target black men.

President of Louisville Urban League makes impassioned plea to stop gang bill

Sadiqa Reynolds, president of the Louisville Urban League, says an anti-gang bill moving through the legislature will hurt minority communities in Kentucky.
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Sadiqa Reynolds, president of the Louisville Urban League, says an anti-gang bill moving through the legislature will hurt minority communities in Kentucky.

All it took for Shelton McElroy to get a year in solitary confinement at Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex was a pair of blue jeans, he told lawmakers Tuesday.

While in prison in 2000, McElroy said the guards noted that he and five friends were wearing denim blue jeans while in the prison yard. The guards took that as evidence that he was in a gang and sent him into isolation, he said, even though he has never been part of a gang.

“They did that to lots of groups in prison, based on what they were wearing,” said McElroy, of Louisville.

Now he’s concerned about a bill making it’s way through the Kentucky legislature that would allow prosecutors to do something similar. House Bill 169 stiffens penalties against gang members in Kentucky while expanding who can be accused of participation in a gang.

“I guarantee, based on discretion, (young black men) will be associated with gang members and incarcerated at higher levels,” McElroy said.

Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, said his bill increases the penalty for recruiting someone into a gang from a misdemeanor to a felony, creates a legal definition for a criminal gang syndicate and requires people who are convicted of being in a criminal gang syndicate to serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentence before parole.

There have been 22 convictions for criminal gang recruitment in Kentucky, according to the Legislative Research Commission. The Department of Corrections currently houses 2,820 people it has labeled gang members, of which only 15 percent must serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole.

LRC staffers said they couldn’t accurately calculate how much the bill might cost Kentucky taxpayers, but they estimated it would cost the state an additional $19.5 million if its provisions were applied to 5 percent of gang members already in prison who would otherwise be eligible for parole much earlier.

An armada of police officers and prosecutors has shuffled from committee to committee in support of the bill during this year’s legislative session, saying the proposal is crucial to stomping out a rising gang problem that is contributing to record numbers of murders in Lexington and Louisville.

“We must use targeted enforcement to save the lives of innocent citizens of the commonwealth of Kentucky,” said Benvenuti. “Oftentimes, the most vulnerable people in Kentucky are preyed upon by gangs.”

An equally large group of community activists and religious leaders have cautioned against unintended consequences of the bill, saying it would disproportionally affect low-income minority communities, thereby increasing the number of black and brown men in prison.

The bill would increase the number of people incarcerated in Kentucky at a time when lawmakers have been told that prisons are so overcrowded people are sleeping on the floor, said state Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville.

“While we have a serious gang problem in Kentucky, this bill is not tailored to address those issues,” Nemes said.

Nemes introduced an amendment in the House to narrow the bill’s impact, but it failed handily. On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee adopted language that would make more exemptions for juvenile offenders and made the definition of a gang slightly more stringent.

Originally, the bill defined a gang as three people who share a name, identifying hand signal, colors, symbols, geographic location or leader. The revised bill requires a group to have two of those characteristics before being labeled a gang.

“Let me be very clear that House Bill 169 does not cast a broad net, that’s one talking point that’s out there,” Benvenuti said. “It is incredibly refined. In fact, Kentucky is one of only a handful of states that does not have this type of legislation. We looked at those states and we made ours very tailored, very tailored.”

In California, enhanced penalties did not reduce gang-related violence, but gang-related homicides declined by 41 percent in Cincinnati when increased penalties were coupled with focused deterrence and wrap-around community services, said Josh Crawford, co-executive director of the Pegasus Institute, a conservative think tank in Louisville.

Sadiqa Reynolds, president of the Louisville Urban League, said the bill only addresses one of the three factors Cincinnati used to reduce gang violence.

“I have heard no one talk about an investment in wrap-around services so that we can prevent some of our young people from looking to gangs or any other place,” Reynolds said.

She urged the committee to table the bill until it provides a comprehensive approach to combating gang violence in communities, rather than just increasing penalties in a way that will likely disenfranchise people of color.

“Now you have a portion of an answer,” Reynolds said. “But it is incomplete. And to pass incomplete legislation endangers my safety and yours.”

Her pleas, for the most part, fell on deaf ears. After being told the bill would take a sledgehammer to minority communities, Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, said he thinks sometimes a harsh approach is the only answer.

“My experience tells me that in a lot of these circumstances dealing with a gang, the sledgehammer is the only thing they understand,” Carroll said.

The bill passed the all-white committee 8-0, with two members offering pass votes. It now goes to the full Senate.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics