Tucked around a few tables in a Frederick Police Department conference room, state officials and other parties discussed the challenges over a specific part of state law: the criminal gang statute.
Sen. Michael Hough (R-District 4), chairman of the Task Force to Study Maryland’s Criminal Gang Statutes, and Del. Jesse Pippy (R-District 4) led some of that discussion Tuesday morning, with several other state officials and representatives.
That included Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, along with prosecutors Rebecca Clinton and Amanda Leatherman. All three told the task force there are many factors they need to prove in order to charge someone under the criminal gang statute.
Smith added that although it’s a tool his office uses, the overall sentencing guidelines aren’t as stringent as those for the underlying crimes, such as assault or murders.
“It’s good optics to say someone has been prosecuted under the gang statute,” Smith said. “But really, in terms of the sentencing, I don’t think it’s had the teeth it needs to have.”
Several topics came up among the task force, including:
- Does a witness protection fund need to be created, or the current one enhanced?
- What role/charges should be applied to gang members who witness or order a crime, versus actually committing it?
- What type of education does there need to be in school/elsewhere, considering many gang members are starting to join around 11-12 years old?
- Are there aspects of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act that could be strengthened or incorporated into state law?
After much discussion, Pippy said that no matter what areas the task force addresses, there’s a key issue they must combat: There are a lot of low-level gang members.
“I’m concerned if you’re just prosecuting low-level guys, they’re replaceable. ... The overall organization doesn’t change,” Pippy said. “I’d like to figure out how to address the bigger picture. ... These soldiers, they can keep replacing them with a phone call.”
Part of the debate Tuesday concerned the balance between punishing younger gang members and providing resources to move them away from the criminal justice system.
Toni Holness, a member of the task force and public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, urged the group to consider diminution credits, parole and probation for younger offenders.
“I am not prepared to keep doing the same thing that has not worked,” she said of harsh penalties for those offenders.
Hough said after the meeting that this, among various other topics discussed, makes the task force’s job difficult.
“It’s a complex problem, in that you have folks on varying sides who have totally different perspectives on it, and trying to come up with a solution that the majority will agree with,” Hough said.
There’s the technical side of criminal justice reform, and then there’s a philosophical side, Hough added.
“A lot of people feel very emotionally about criminal justice issues one way or the other,” Hough said. “So trying to navigate that, it always makes it tricky. ... There’s been a good track record to figuring these out, but there’s a lot of push and pull.”
The task force’s last meeting will be scheduled sometime in December in Annapolis, and Hough hopes the General Assembly can pass a bill based on the task force’s recommendations next session.
Smith summarized the task force’s job as one of two scenarios.
“What evil are you trying to conquer here?” Smith said. “Are we trying to combat violent criminal gang networks, or are we trying to address a larger, broader question of organized crime?”