Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton Credit: Gil Ford Photography

An effort to broadly define gangs and impose extra penalties for crimes they commit was approved Friday for House debate. A similar bill was passed by a Senate committee on Thursday.

The House Judiciary B committee passed House Bill 541 Friday morning. Efforts to advance a similar bill last year died.

Described by Rep. Andy Gipson as possibly “one of the most significant pieces of legislation we pass this year in terms of public safety,” the Mississippi Anti-Gang Act defines what constitutes a gang and outlines specific penalties for criminal activity committed by members.

The bill defines a gang as three or more people who “collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity” through a common name, hand sign or gesture, slogan or graffitti and participate in criminal gang activity. According to the bill, that includes any kind of crime in Mississippi.

If the crime committed as a gang member counts as a felony, punishment ranges from a five to 15-year imprisonment and a $10,000 to $15,000 fine in addition to the original sentence for the crime itself. Gang members receive up to five additional years to their sentence if the crime committed is a misdemeanor, according to the bill.

“What we lack in the state is a comprehensive piece of legislation that has crime specific to gang activity, and that’s what this bill does,” Gipson, a Republican from Braxton said. “Gang activity is any activity on the books that’s committed by a gang.”

In the meeting, Mississippi Department of Public Safety general counsel Lora Hunter described the results of a December 2017 “gang threat assessment” that polled 125 law enforcement agencies from every county in the state on the most prevalent gangs in each county.

Hunter said all but five counties reported the same three gangs as most prevalent —Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, and the Simon City Royals.

Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson asked Gipson why hate groups were not included in the legislation.

“There’s a reason for them being called hate groups and there is a reason for us calling activities that is committed by certain individuals gang-related activities,” Wooten said.

Gipson, who is chairman of the committee, said the language was purposefully broad.

“The definition of criminal gang activity under this bill is an act or acts that would constitute a criminal offense. That’s any criminal offense on the books, including hate crimes on the books,” he said.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.