Assembly Weighing an Array of Measures on Gangs

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

RICHMOND -- The General Assembly is considering legislation that proponents say would help authorities to crack down on gang activity in Northern Virginia.

Most of the bills making their way through the legislature would increase punishments for convicted gang members and grant police more power to manage gang activities and curb the weapons many members use.

A bill from Del. Vivian A. Watts (D-Fairfax) would generally make brandishing a machete a misdemeanor, though in some cases the act would be a felony.

That bill was introduced in response to several high-profile crimes. In May 2004, a member of the South Side Locos lost four fingers when he was attacked with a machete by rival gang members in Fairfax County. Eight months later, a 25-year-old man lost three fingers when he was assaulted by machete-wielding MS-13 gang members outside a Merrifield movie theater.

"The machete is a symbol of a lot of these gangs," Watts said. The bill "is a way of trying to arrest [gang members] before they actually commit a crime with the machete."

Other bills, if passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), would broaden judges' powers in sentencing gang members and better define illegal gang activity. Other legislation would allow information about juveniles' involvement in gangs to be given to law enforcement agencies.

Virginia law defines a gang as three or more people organized in a criminal act.

In the last decade, gangs such as MS-13, a Latino group also known as Mara Salvatrucha, have penetrated Northern Virginia's suburbs and rural areas and have been blamed for many homicides, rapes and beatings. Police have found a gang presence in every high school, and some members are as young as 8.

In a Washington Post poll conducted last fall, 90 percent of registered Virginia voters who were surveyed said that reducing gang violence was an important issue in deciding whom they would choose for governor, ranking that issue alongside taxes and transportation. Seven percent said gang violence was the most important issue.

Lawmakers in Virginia, as in other states, have responded to such sentiments with harsher sentences and new criminal charges specific to gang activity.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Richmond has won passage of laws, among them an extension of police powers, addressing the issue. In 2004, the state enacted nearly a dozen laws related to gangs.

That effort mirrors work done by the state's congressional delegation. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) has helped secure nearly $15 million in federal money over several years for fighting gangs in the region.

The bills in the General Assembly this year have been sponsored by Republicans and Democrats. A bill from Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) would require prison and juvenile justice officials to collect information on gang members and provide it to the Commonwealth's Attorneys' Services Council, a state agency that trains prosecutors. If the bill is signed into law, the council will disseminate the information to state prosecutors.

"One of the problems we found is that prosecutors were having a tough time proving [a] group was a gang," said Albo, chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee. "Some of the things we're trying to do this year . . . address these technical questions."

Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by freshman Del. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) would require probation officers to check the immigration status of convicted gang members.

Tougher measures introduced this year have failed. A bill sponsored by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) would have allowed life imprisonment for a third gang-related crime over a 10-year period. Also, a bill that would have created a law enforcement assistance unit for gangs and terrorism in the attorney general's office died in a House panel. Proponents said it would have aided local and state police in the investigation and prosecution of gangs.

Although many anti-gang bills have passed overwhelmingly, lawmakers and activists have raised concerns. Some researchers and observers doubt that state policies can reduce gang violence. Opponents of some bills said that they would go too far and pointed to studies showing that prevention programs can be effective.

"All the prosecution in the world won't help if you don't have prevention" of gang activity, said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, a lobbyist who represents immigrant groups.

Democrats in the House of Delegates criticized the chamber's Republicans last week for defeating several amendments to the proposed $72 billion budget that would have increased allocations for anti-gang initiatives. Republicans said they had spent much of their criminal-justice money in cracking down on sex offenders.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company