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Bill to Combat Gang Recruitment Advanced by Kentucky House Panel

J. Tyler Franklin

Hoping to stop the influx of young recruits into gangs, Kentucky lawmakers advanced a bill Wednesday that would toughen sentences for luring children into the groups.

While police officials from Louisville and Lexington — the state's two largest cities — lined up in support before a House committee, the measure drew critics. They included some black ministers and community activists who worried that the legislation is so broadly drafted that it would wrongly ensnare people who live among gangs but don't belong to them.

"You've got to make sure that it doesn't grab up a bunch of guppies when you're trying to get sharks," said Eddie Woods, an activist whose work includes drug and gang intervention.

The bill approved by the House Judiciary Committee would make it a felony for adults to recruit young gang members, and require them to serve most of their sentences. The offense is now a misdemeanor. It also would create enhanced penalties for gang-related violent crimes.

Republican Rep. Robert Benvenuti III of Lexington, the bill's lead sponsor, referred to gang activity as "the most critical public protection issue" facing Kentucky.

The bill, he said, would "protect some of Kentucky's most vulnerable children, and significantly reduce the carnage and human suffering that directly flows ... from gang criminal activity."

While presenting the bill to the committee, Benvenuti was flanked by police officers and a prosecutor who support the measure.

Gangs are responsible for a litany of crimes including drug and human trafficking, robberies and money laundering, police officials said. Gang recruitment is reaching children as young as 8 to 10 years old, Benvenuti said.

Besides carrying the tougher penalties for gang recruitment of youngsters, the bill would require adult offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Violent gang-related crimes would also carry the requirement of serving at least 85 percent of the sentence.

Those offenders now often serve about 20 percent of their sentences, Benvenuti said.

The longer sentencing requirements would add to Kentucky's costly problem with prison overcrowding, critics said. They also pointed to recent comments by Kentucky's top public safety official, who told lawmakers that the state's prisons will run out of space by May 2019.

The bill also would create new definitions for criminal gangs and criminal gang syndicates.

The Rev. Anthony Everett said lawmakers should avoid punitive measures, and instead focus on more "humane approaches" to try to "shake the gang ties out of young men." Intervention efforts, he said, should include job training, mentoring and after-school and recreational programs.

Critics worried that non-gang members who dress similarly to gang members and live among them could mistakenly get associated with them.

"Some folks, to stay alive, associate with folks who are in gangs. It doesn't mean they're going to do gang activity," said community activist Anthony Smith.

The legislation is House Bill 169.

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