The Kentucky House and Senate are poised to pass a bill this week that is both unnecessary and likely to be costly in terms of both money and human potential.
If it reaches him, Gov. Matt Bevin should veto House Bill 315, the so-called gang bill. It flies in the face of the evidence-based criminal justice reforms Bevin has pushed as governor.
Last June, Bevin appointed his non-partisan Criminal Justice Police Assessment Council, saying he wanted “a smarter, compassionate, evidence-based approach.” Senate Bill 120, passed this session to improve employment opportunities for people leaving prison, was a result of CJPAC’s work.
HB 315 didn’t come from CJPAC, and that’s no surprise. There’s no evidence it would reduce gang activity but its broad and vague definitions and heavy-handed punishment provisions will mean that young people who have committed low-level, non-violent crimes could spend a long time in prison with little hope for the “second chance” Bevin so vigorously supports.
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Sponsor Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, said HB 315 is based on a similar law in California, prompting Senate President Robert Stivers to ask when Kentucky modeled itself on California.
Even more concerning, California’s STEP Act, passed in 1988 to “seek the eradication of criminal activity by street gangs,” hasn’t achieved that goal. A 2009 study of the measure reported the opposite: “harsher sentences for minor gang related crimes may actually increase gang commitment because individuals are forced to join gangs and strengthen their gang ties in order to survive in prison.”
Without question, HB 315 would increase our already staggeringly high prison population — over 23,000 state inmates and a $530 million annual budget. The Corrections Impact Statement on HB 315 estimated the cost at over $38 million over time.
Criminal gangs are real and responsible for crimes that deeply damage our communities. People should be punished for recruiting others into gangs, as they can be under existing Kentucky law.
In the almost 20 years since that legislation passed, there have been 22 convictions under it, including six in 2015 and none in 2016.
There will be more convictions under HB 315 because it casts a wide net in defining gangs and what it takes to tag an individual as a gang member.
Under it, a gang can be any three people who share a name, symbol or leader, or who have been identified as a gang by any state or the federal government. Their “pattern of criminal activity” could be crimes committed by one or more members at any time over five years.
The evidence a gang actually exists includes identification by an informant, a member’s parent or guardian or participation in photos or social-media interaction with gang members.
Think about it: many young people have hundreds of social-media contacts: long-ago classmates, friends of friends, former co-workers and team members. If one of them is identified as a gang member, then so can all his or her “friends.”
The results are catastrophic if the gang label sticks. Judges lose most discretion over sentencing. A Class B misdemeanor such as harassment — now subject to up to three months in jail or simply a fine — would carry a mandatory sentence of 76 to 90 days. Felony charges must be prosecuted for one level more serious when the gang element is present and those convicted must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence.
So, a Class C felony that carries one to five years in prison, with possibility of parole with 20 percent of time served becomes a Class B with five to 10 years and a minimum of 85 percent served before possibility of parole.
These mandatory prison terms not only fill up jails and prisons at enormous cost, they also discourage rehabilitation. Consider, a person sentenced to five years with the possibility of parole after a year, is motivated to participate in drug rehab or career-oriented classes.
But with a certain four-plus years inside, motivation shifts away from rehabilitation to survival. As noted in the California study, people join gangs to survive a long term in prison.
“Gang” is another in the long line of frightening terms invoked to bloat the criminal code, fill prisons and drain our treasuries while doing little to make us safer.
Bevin’s right in rejecting this trend. He should stay the course and veto this bad bill.