Florida Gang Bill Targets Homegrown Terror, Internet

http://www.palmbeachpost.com/state/content/local_news/epaper/2008/01/24/s1b_gangs_0124.html

GOP gang bill targets kingpins, Internet

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Republican state legislators Wednesday presented a bill aimed at fighting gang violence in Florida, but it did not include a key proposal recommended recently by a statewide grand jury that would establish special prosecutors and add investigators throughout the state.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, and Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, fleshes out recommendations made by the grand jury Jan. 15

That grand jury was empaneled in West Palm Beach last fall after more than a year of gang violence in the state, including the March shootout at a backyard gathering in Lake Worth that killed three men.

According to the proposed legislation:

  • A gang "kingpin" – an individual judged to be the leader of a gang – could be found guilty of a first-degree felony and sentenced to life in prison.
  • Criminal penalties for crimes would be enhanced substantially if a defendant was found to belong to a criminal gang.
  • Promoting criminal gang activity via the Internet – for example, on Web sites such as MySpace – would be a felony.
  • Felons, who are already denied the right to possess firearms, would be denied the right to possess bulletproof vests.
  • Gang members on parole from prison would be prohibited from contacting other gang members.
  • Injunctions prohibiting gang members from gathering in certain locales would be easier to obtain.
  • Requiring an individual to commit a crime to qualify for gang membership would be a felony.
  • Gang members convicted of crimes could temporarily lose their driving privileges.

    "We are making it an absolute priority to combat criminal gangs in our state," Attorney General Bill McCollum said in a statement. "This legislation will provide essential tools to law enforcement and prosecutors as they lead our state in this effort."

    But the first recommendation made by the statewide grand jury investigating gang violence when it released its initial report last week was the need for more gang prosecutors, the retention of veteran prosecutors through more competitive salaries and the addition of gang investigators.

    South Florida prosecutors praised the grand jury when the report was released but worried that because of state budget cuts those recommendations couldn’t come true.

    The budget for state attorney’s offices is due to be slashed this year, not increased, said Snyder, the Stuart lawmaker. And federal anti-crime funding, which might have been used to fight gangs, has been cut by $350 million this year.

    "The timing right now for additional prosecutors would be very difficult," Snyder said.

    Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, who introduced similar anti-gang legislation last year, only to see it die, held out some hope that money for additional staffing could be negotiated during the appropriations process in the legislature.

    "In the end you need to back up the rhetoric with money," Aronberg said. "The problem requires investment in police and prosecutors or we will lose the war."

    State law enforcement officials estimate there are some 65,000 gang members in the state and that gang criminals now play major roles in the illicit drug trade, the illegal sale of weapons and other crimes.

    The grand jury will continue to meet this year.

    While its first report dealt with law enforcement efforts to fight gang violence, it also is expected to deliver reports on preventive measures that might keep youngsters out of gangs.

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