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Legislature approves enhanced punishments for gang members

The language was patterned after a Florida law, and similar language is used in the majority of states.

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The Alabama Legislature sent an act to crack down on gang activity to the governor’s desk on Thursday after the House passed the bill 95-6 and the Senate passed it unanimously.

Senate bill 143 would more severely punish individuals convicted of a felony if they are found to be advancing a criminal enterprise or to be a member of a criminal enterprise. Those convicted of a class A felony would be sentenced to a minimum of 25 years, those convicted of a class B felony would be punished for a class A felony, and class C would be punished as class B.

“We’ve got to be able to attack the problem, and what we’ve seen is organized activity throughout our states contributing to many of the losses of lives and the significant property crimes that are occurring. This is a way to be able to aggressively deal with it. We think it’s going to be successful, and we’ve seen other states be able to do the same thing,” Steve Marshall, the attorney general of Alabama, said.

The act would impose further punishment if the perpetrator possessed or used a firearm during the crime. Punishment varies based on type and use of firearms.

The final text of the act requires juvenile offenders aged 16 or older to be tried as adults, but bill sponsor Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, said transfers to adult courts will not necessarily be used in all cases.

“There is discretion for prosecutors as to whether or not they want to pursue that, realizing that, you know, you better have your ducks in a row when you’re going to try to use this bill, but when appropriate, they get to,” Barfoot said.

Critics of the bill objected to the term “criminal enterprise.” A previous version of the bill referred to gangs, which are defined in law, but the broader “criminal enterprise” would include a mafia or terrorist organizations. Rep. Patrick Sellers, D-Jefferson, argued the definition could be construed to include even fraternities and sororities.

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“We do our citizens a disservice every time there is legislation that is a ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ without addressing what the real problems and concerns are within our community,” Sellers said.

Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Jefferson, who presented the bill to the House, met with members to explain the “criminal enterprise” language, which was one of several amendments passed by the Senate. The House delayed a vote on the bill until after the meeting. Several representatives initially opposed, including Sellers, voted for the bill.

The language was patterned after a Florida law, and similar language is used in the majority of states.

“We’ve heard very positive results from law enforcement in those areas. And look, this is something that Alabama law enforcement has asked us for, and we need to give them this tool,” Marshall said. “What the Legislature has done today gets us one step closer in making sure that we have the opportunity to be able to attack this problem.”

The act identifies a member of a criminal enterprise by using a list of ten criteria, three of which must be proven. The criteria include admitting membership, being identified as a member by a parent or guardian, and physical evidence identifying a member, but other identifications include style of dress, hand signs, tattoos, and company kept.

“I’m still a little bit concerned that this legislation might target particular groups,” Rep. Adline Clarke D-Mobile, said. “I do know some kids who — and it’s not wise on their part to perpetrate being a member of a gang, but it happens — innocent kids who do it for, I guess in some cases for peer pressure, in some cases because they want to be cool. I don’t want them to be judged as a part of a criminal enterprise when they do these things innocently.”

Samuel Stettheimer is a reporting intern at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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