As legislation to increase penalties for gang members works its way through the Mississippi legislature, black lawmakers and civil liberties groups warned again Wednesday that it would force taxpayers to underwrite long prison stays and could be unduly harsh on young African American men.
"It's all designed to put young people in the prison system," said Rep. Willie Bailey, a Greenville Democrat.
The Senate passed Senate Bill 2868 last week, 35-14, sending it to the House for further action. The House had its own bill to toughen gang penalties, but it failed to advance. The measure would require five to 15 years to be added to a prison sentence for any felony committed by someone in a gang. It would also create some new crimes, such as recruiting someone to join a gang.
Supporters say Mississippi has a widespread gang problem, and a new law will aid in prosecuting gang leaders. And the bill says that the new crimes apply only if gang members are committing felonies.
Never miss a local story.
"I don't know where this fear or this concern is coming from based on the language of the bill as written," said Sen. Brice Wiggins, a Pascagoula Republican sponsoring the measure. Wiggins said he worked to refine and narrow the language after the bill stalled out last year.
But opponents say the sentencing increase is too harsh, because children as young as 13 can be tried in adult courts in Mississippi. Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said those children could be automatically forced into adult court. The tougher sentences would also ban prisoners from getting out early on parole or probation.
Wiggins said that's a misreading of the measure and that no juveniles would be automatically forced into adult court.
Jody Owens, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, also said that if thousands of people end up with longer prison sentences, it will be costly to taxpayers and destroy efforts to reduce Mississippi's prison population.
"This bill will bankrupt the state and it will reverse the bipartisan efforts that have existed for years."
ACLU state legal director Joshua Tom said that many gangs are engaged both in legal activities, such as socializing, and illegal activities, such as crimes. He said that gang members should only face criminal penalties if they take part in or have specific intent to take part in illegal activities, not just hang around with other people who are criminals.
"Maybe they're getting them to join the group to do something completely legal," Tom said.
Wiggins, though, said it's crucial to get at gang recruiting.
"The purpose of the bill is to get at those at the top of the chain," Wiggins said.