Casting a Wider Net to Battle Gang Crime

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

Spurred by reports from prosecutors throughout Maryland that gang activity is occurring from the Eastern Shore to Catoctin Mountain, two state lawmakers are proposing legislation that would give state prosecutors greater latitude in going after gang members involved in crimes.

One bill, sponsored by state Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Cecil County), was introduced last week. A second, similar bill was scheduled to be introduced this week by House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D) and is supported by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D).

Both bills are endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association, said Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D), the state's attorney in Queen Anne's County and president of the association.

Both were researched and originally drafted by a member of the staff of Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy (D), said Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for Jessamy.

Both bills would allow prosecutors to introduce to juries evidence that individual crimes -- such as robberies, rapes and killings -- were orchestrated by gang leaders. They would allow prosecutors to go after not only those who committed a crime, but also gang accomplices who helped plan the act or carry it out, prosecutors said.

Under current state law, there is no provision for prosecutors to introduce evidence that a crime was carried out as part of a gang activity. Both bills would allow judges to impose stiffer sentences -- of up to 25 to 30 years, depending on the bill -- Kratovil said.

Jacobs said the new law is needed because gang activity "is spreading much faster than we realized."

Kratovil said the second proposal arose out of efforts to draft language that would appeal to state's attorneys and Gansler on questions of jurisdiction.

Some local state's attorneys said the attorney general should have the authority to prosecute a gang case without a local prosecutor's consent, while others said that the attorney general should obtain the local consent, Kratovil said. Gansler said in an interview he agreed that the attorney general should obtain the consent of local prosecutors.

In both bills, consent by the local elected officials would be needed, but the bill endorsed by Gansler and the governor would allow the attorney general's office to investigate cases that occur in multiple jurisdictions, Kratovil said.

The Jacobs bill has a provision that would allow the state to seize the assets of gang members procured through criminal activity. The other bill does not have such a provision, because some state lawmakers have voiced strong opposition to it, Kratovil said.

Federal prosecutors already can target gangs under the federal anti-racketeering law, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. In August 2005, they indicted 22 members of the MS-13 gang in Maryland. Two of the defendants have been convicted by a jury, and eight others have pleaded guilty to racketeering or related charges.

In an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee two weeks ago, Gansler spoke in support of anti-gang legislation and compared it to the RICO statute. But Jacobs and several state prosecutors involved in drafting the bill said it is not a state equivalent of the federal RICO law.

The RICO law allows prosecutors to introduce evidence of crimes committed by a gang or organized crime group, even if the particular defendant on trial was not involved with those offenses. Both proposed laws are different in that they target gang members for their conduct in specific crimes that are part of gang activity, said Kratovil.

Gansler, until recently Montgomery County state's attorney, said he's well aware that the proposed legislation is not a state equivalent of RICO.

"There's good things and bad things about using the name RICO. It provides a benchmark of understanding for people, because what we're talking about is legislation to bring down gangs," Gansler said. "The downside of using the term is that the federal RICO statute is far more complicated and broad than what we're talking about doing."

Gansler said larger state's attorney's offices, such as those in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and the city of Baltimore, would have the resources and ability to prosecute gang cases themselves. Some smaller state's attorney's offices may want the attorney general's assistance, and his office could prosecute cases in those jurisdictions, "with the consent of the local state's attorney."

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