A 16-year-old Tennessee law aimed at the crimes of street gangs comes back to life effective July 1 after being largely unused since its passage.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a new statute that makes more specific offenses for which gang members can get longer sentences. He signed the bill Wednesday at the Criminal Justice Center.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed an overhaul of the statute in Memphis Wednesday, July 26, that keeps enhanced penalties and upgraded felony charges for violent crimes involving gang members.
It simplifies the process of establishing defendants charged under the statute who are gang members.
As he signed the bill in the auditorium of the Criminal Justice Center, Haslam touted a decrease in repeat violent offenses statewide.
“Yet, we continue to have one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation,” he added. “This legislation gives prosecutors another tool to fight gang activity and help make Tennessee safer.”
The law in its old form was “convoluted,” said Shelby County Assistant District Attorney Ray Lepone, who has prosecuted gang cases for more than a decade and leads the prosecution unit of the Multi-Agency Gang Unit.
“You have to prove that they are in a criminal gang, that they commit a criminal gang offense and that there’s a pattern of criminal gang activity,” Lepone said. “The problem was that the definitions were so vague that it really put it into a lot of litigation. Judges didn’t understand it. Defense lawyers didn’t understand it. Prosecutors didn’t understand it.”
So the new law replaced a definition of what made a criminal gang offense different than the same offense committed by someone other than a gang, which caused confusion about the difference between a gang and some other kind of group of people.
“You have to prove that they have two or more prior convictions for gang offenses in their past before you can go after them,” Lepone said. “We’ll be able to use it way more easier now.”
In place of the definition is a list.
“We took out the convoluted definition of criminal gang offense and enumerated the offenses – that these will be considered criminal gang offenses starting out with murder, robbery, assault, rape, burglary – all different kinds of things,” Lepone said.
The 1997 law was also outdated by deeper criminal involvement by street gangs as criminal enterprises.
“It didn’t specifically cover a lot of the crimes that the gangs really are now committing nowadays,” Lepone added. “So we basically broadened it and put more crimes under the umbrella.”
Haslam and Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Haslam, who is the former Shelby County district attorney general, credited Lepone as playing a large role in drafting and shaping the legislation based on his experience.
But Haslam pointed out that gangs are also a problem in the state’s rural areas.
Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said the bill signing is the first held in the Criminal Justice Center. It is the third Haslam has held in Shelby County since he was elected governor in 2010.
The bill is one of several anti-gang measures Weirich and before her, Gibbons, lobbied for in the Tennessee Legislature.
The Memphis Crime Commission was also part of the effort.