Lawmakers seek to curtail gang formation
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HARRISBURG -- After two young men were stabbed to death in a gang-related fight in December, Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan decided it was time to look at preventive measures for gang activity.
"We can punish gang members for the actual crime itself," Mr. Hogan said, describing the prosecution process following the homicide in Avondale, "but there is nothing that allows us to punish for gang involvement."
Mr. Hogan is prosecuting 12 people between the ages of 16 and 20 for offenses related to the killings. If he had the right tools, he said, he could stop gang violence before it occurred.
He approached Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, to propose a bill making it a crime for gangs to recruit members. Pennsylvania currently has no laws targeting gang formation and Mr. Pileggi agreed prosecutors need new means to do so.
"Law enforcement officials knew there were gangs [in Chester County]," Mr. Hogan said. "With this new legislation, I can arrest an individual when I know he's going to start recruiting, to head off gang activity in our area."
If the law is enacted, asking someone to join or remain in a gang would be a misdemeanor, while using threats, intimidation or physical harm to pressure someone to join or remain in a gang would be a felony.
Josh Funk, deputy general counsel for the Senate Republican Caucus, said lawmakers are working out the definition of "gang" to ensure the bill "targets those furthering criminal activity."
Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said he thinks there is a lot of support for the measure. While he said he would not classify Pittsburgh as having a gang problem, he agreed that the legislation could be an important tool to keep it that way.
In northeastern Pennsylvania, Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, is working to stop organized crime after a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report showed a dramatic spike in gang activity in his area.
"I do think this legislation -- in terms of defining criminal gang activity, dealing with recruitment and implementing educational initiatives -- will go a long way to keeping our young kids from going down the path of a gang life," he said.
Mr. Yudichak also said the legislation would help protect youth from harmful gang initiation rituals.
"A 13-year-old girl was abducted and beaten up as a result of a gang initiation ritual," he said. "If you're going to prey on our children, we're going to make it a criminal offense."
More than 20 states have laws making it a crime to recruit gang members.
"It is Sen. Pileggi's full intention to get [the bill] on the governor's desk in the fall," said Mr. Funk.
First Published August 6, 2012 12:13 am