Tenn. Anti-Gang Law Largely Unused Since Passage

The Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Tenn. (AP) – A state law enacted 13 years ago to give gang members harsher prison sentences likely never has been successfully used by prosecutors.

The Tennessee General Assembly approved legislation in 1997 authorizing district attorneys to seek stronger sentences for defendants convicted of gang offenses.

At the time, supporters touted the law as evidence Tennessee was tackling a growing crime problem by lengthening prison sentences for gang members.

But 13 years later, there are numerous signs that prosecutors use the law sparingly, if at all, to combat gang activity.

State Rep. Ty Cobb, D-Columbia, said researchers on Capitol Hill have discovered the law has not lengthened a single sentence since it was implemented.

The standard sentence for a first-time offender convicted of armed robbery is eight to 12 years in prison, with eligibility for parole after 30 percent of the sentence is served. But, under the anti-gang law, if prosecutors prove the act was committed by a gang member, that sentence would be lengthened to 15 to 25 years with the same parole guidelines.

Detective Korey Cooper of the Columbia Police Department’s gang-intelligence unit said authorities have discussed using the statute, but it’s hard to prove.

“I can tell you Little Johnny is a gang member, and Little Johnny may tell you he is a gang member,” Cooper said. “But when it comes court time, it is a whole different story.”

Mike Bottoms, district attorney general of the 22nd Judicial District, said it’s difficult to find people willing to identify somebody as a gang member.

Prosecutors can use other enhancement factors to seek harsher sentences, such as a defendant’s criminal history, the recklessness of the crime and if a firearm was used.

Carter F. Smith, a criminologist at Middle Tennessee State University, said it’s not surprising enhanced penalties for gang members have been used sparingly.

Politicians often propose stricter penalties for gun crimes, gang offenses and hate crimes. The laws might sound good to the public, but in reality, the statutes are rarely used by prosecutors, Smith said.

“Most enhancement penalties are political responses to an outcry from the public,” Smith said. “They are a huge waste of time.”

Smith said law enforcement could use existing conspiracy laws to crack down on gang activity, noting that the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was one of the few successful examples of enhancement penalties.

The federal law commonly referred to as RICO provides stiffer penalties for acts performed as part of a criminal organization.


Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.columbiadailyherald.com

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