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A controversial bill designed to impose new penalties for people affiliated with criminal gangs has another chance in the Legislature this session.

Lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary B committee voted to pass S.B. 2459 Tuesday. The bill creates a legal definition for “criminal gang activity” and identifies offenses committed under that definition as separate from existing crimes. People convicted under the proposed law could face three to 15 years in prison.

“Just like embezzlement, just like burglary, just like sex offenses, [this bill] allows law enforcement to have a tool to investigate the activity that is going on so that they can get down and hopefully address what we’re seeing in the state of Mississippi,” said Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, the committee chair who sponsored the bill.

Under S.B. 2459, “criminal gang activity” would include acts such as:

  • “The commission, attempted commission, conspiracy to commit, or solicitation, coercion, encouragement intimidation of another person to commit an act or acts that would constitute a criminal offense under the law of this state, the United States or another state in furtherance of the gang’s purpose,”
  • “With intent to obtain or earn membership in a gang or maintain or increase the gang member’s status or position in a gang,”
  • To cause, encourage, solicit, recruit or coerce another to become a member or associate of a gang or to commit a crime to become a member or associate of a gang. To hide proceeds or evidence of criminal gang activity, or encourage, influence, solicit or coerce another to hide proceeds or evidence of criminal gang activity,” and
  • To commit any felony or misdemeanor while an inmate in a prison facility or employed as a corrections officer for purpose of criminal gang activity.”

Similar bills in recent years have died, following criticisms that such legislation would give law enforcement too much discretion in identifying gangs, and lead to racial profiling and fail to prevent crime.

This year, lawmakers relied on testimony from Jimmy Anthony, the vice-president of the nonprofit Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators. Anthony gave a presentation earlier this month in the wake of an eruption of deadly gang-related violence centered mostly at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Gov. Tate Reeves has attributed some of the problems currently facing state prisons to gang activity.

Although data presented by Anthony to lawmakers was limited to historical data from the Mississippi Department of Corrections showing the number of individuals the agency had identified as gang members, the bill would extend to gangs operating outside of prisons as well.

In the committee meeting Tuesday, some lawmakers questioned the impact of the bill and asked for more data showing the extent of gang activity in the state.

Vice-chair Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, raised options that already exist to prosecute gang members, including MDOC’s internal investigations division, as well as the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

“The purpose of this bill is to stop the violence here in our state, stop them from using our children, and give the people the opportunity to get out of a gang if they want to get out of a gang,” Anthony responded.

Citing a criminal justice reform package from 2014 aimed at cutting incarceration costs and reducing the state’s prison population, Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville asked if there was any estimate for impact the bill would have on MDOC. The legislation would define “criminal gang activity” as a crime of violence, and people convicted of it would not be eligible for parole or other early-release programs.

“We let so many people out, it ought to be a wash,” said Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune.

Simmons said after the meeting that he was concerned that there is a subjective standard for how law enforcement agencies validate gangs, and that people who commit crimes that already exist in statute may be further criminalized under the proposed law simply due to the people they associate with. The bill, Simmons believes, would help increase the prison population and lead to longer prison sentences.

“If we have a gang problem in the state of Mississippi, the question is: what are we trying to do to…discourage people who may be affiliated with gangs as opposed to just criminalizing people’s right to associate?” Simmons said.

The committee also passed a bill that would expand parole eligibility to more prisoners.

A similar bill addressing penalties for gang activity has been introduced in the House this year.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.