Legislation on gang activity faces fervent backlash

Activists, professors question law’s definition of gangs, caution against potential applications

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2014

When Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 signed gang sentencing enhancement legislation into law on July 1, he did so amidst widespread community opposition.

Under the legislation, known as “criminal street gang enhancement,” prosecutors can seek an additional 10-year sentence for “any person who is convicted of any felony that is knowingly committed for the benefit, at the direction of, or in association with any criminal street gang or criminal street gang member.” The gang enhancement legislation consists of joint bills in the House and Senate, known as the amended “Act Relating to Criminal Procedure.”

Four days before Chafee signed the legislation, 22 community organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence and the Providence Youth Student Movement, sent Chafee a letter urging him to veto the bill.  The groups detailed their concerns about the broad scope of the bill and the dangers of incarcerating vulnerable youths forced to commit crimes on behalf of gang leaders.

Some community members’ disappointment, though less vocal since the bill’s passing, endures among a diverse range of groups focused on crime in Providence. The persistent opposition highlights contradictory opinions that have developed about crime’s prevalence in the city, its connection to gang activity and the proper approaches to stemming gang violence in affected communities.


A contradictory consensus

Whether violent crime rates have risen or fallen in Providence is still a matter of debate among community members and politicians. The concern over a recent increase in violent crime catalyzed prosecutors to seek a legal deterrent for gang-related violence, said Joee Lindbeck, special assistant attorney general.

Specifically, the shooting death of 12-year-old Aynis Vargas at a graduation party in Hartford Park on June 15, 2013 served as “the impetus for the attorney general to look at what other states had done to combat crime,” said Amy Kempe, public information officer at the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office.

Despite the shooting of Vargas — which the police found to be a result of gang-related violence between the Harriet Street gang, also known as H-Block, and a rival gang known as the Hartford Soldiers — some community members and scholars insist that crime has decreased dramatically in Providence and the violent crimes committed as part of gang activity remain rare and hard to measure.

Stefano Bloch, a postdoctoral fellow in urban studies teaching URBN 1230: “Crime and the City” this semester, said cities in the United States have never been safer.

This statement may be consistent with recent crime reports from the Providence Police Department.

The rate of violent crimes citywide has decreased by 22 percent overall since last year, with a 44 percent decrease in incidents of aggravated assault with a firearm, a 31 percent decrease in robberies with a firearm and a 29 percent decrease in general robberies, according to a recent weekly crime report.  Though the homicide rate has not dropped dramatically, it has remained relatively consistent, numbering 13 so far this year, compared to 11 at the same time last year.

When individuals claim crime has gone up or down, “we should always look at it with a raised eyebrow,” said Sean Varano, assistant professor of criminal justice at Roger Williams University’s School of Justice Studies.

The prosecutors’ focus on the gang-related death of Vargas is a case of allowing a particular violent incident to drive public policy, Varano said.

“These highly charged emotional situations occur that are devastating to neighborhoods, to families, and we use those as rallying points to pass legislation that is far from perfect,” he added.

Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, who signed the letter to Chafee opposing the legislation, expressed similar concerns about the origins of the sentencing enhancement bill. “I think what was missing was a real discussion on the merits and the costs and the benefits. It passed on the heels of an incident, and that’s not the way an intelligent state in the northeastern United States should be passing laws,” Gross said.

The enhancement law is not only a poor solution to the problem but also an added burden on taxpayers, Gross said. In a country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, “we just committed to putting people in jail a lot longer,” he added.

Bloch said the legislation is “an ideological strategy as much as it is a practical legal strategy.”

“It’s really appeasing the general public who are engaged in a moral panic against crime,” he said. “Really all legislation like this is doing is speaking to the people who aren’t committing crimes in the first place and really aren’t victims of crime. They’re just paranoid.”

Another major concern among critics of the law is the broad definition of what constitutes a gang, which Lindbeck said prosecutors developed after assessing 42 different states’ definitions.

The Rhode Island sentencing enhancement law defines a “criminal street gang” as any “ongoing organization, association or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal or delinquent acts” and “having an identifiable name or common identifiable signs, colors or symbols” marking the group.

But the 22 community groups wrote in their letter to Chafee that this definition is so broad that it has little value in distinguishing what a gang is.

Though Kempe said the legislation would not be used for non-violent crimes, Varano said he is wary of this claim.

“When someone says, ‘(I) promise … I’ll do the right thing,’ that doesn’t satisfy people,” Varano said. “The reality is it gives broad discretion to prosecutors and to the legal system to define certain individuals in groups as gangs. As the legislation is written, it’s exceptionally loose.”

Under the legislation’s definition, graffiti writers who are part of tagging crews — groups of graffiti artists that come together to “collaborate on painting productions” and compete with other crews at painting — could be considered gangs, Bloch said. The community groups’ letter to Chafee also cites graffiti as a pertinent example of the new law’s scope.

“Only last year … the General Assembly made some graffiti offenses a felony, punishable by two years in prison. If this legislation passes, an 18-year-old who writes a recognizable gang sign on the side of a bus could face 12 years in prison,” the organizations wrote in the letter to Chafee prior to the bill’s passage.


Solving the problem

Bloch said the bill will do little to deter potential criminals.

“Often, would-be criminals aren’t privy to what’s happening in the state legislature. They’re only confronted with it when they’re arraigned,” he said.

Instead, reducing crime begins with investments in society, Gross said, adding that the responsibility for a solution to gang violence is community-wide.

“It starts with better reading in elementary (schools). It starts with parents and better housing,” Gross said.

The Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence offers a range of programs, including nonviolence training in prisons, adult reentry programs and year-round and summer employment opportunities for adults and youths from ages 14 to 17 considered to be at high risk of joining gangs or participating in gang-related activity.

The institute also utilizes “street workers,” many of whom are former offenders, to respond to conflict on the street and become mentors for high-risk youth.

Varano is also a member of the research team for Project Safe Neighborhoods, a federal grant program through the U.S. Department of Justice to reduce gang violence using federal, local and state resources. Providence received $150,000 in federal funding last October, according to a news release by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.

Gross said he would welcome an opportunity to reconsider the bill and to engage in a collaborative and balanced discussion about solutions to gang violence.

“We are way beyond in this intelligent society … locking them up and throwing away the key,” he said. “We can’t be working on rumors and fear.”

When asked if any criminal sentences had been enhanced under the new law, Lindbeck said the law has been present for only three months. Though there are crimes committed recently that could fall under the law, she said those crimes are still being investigated.


  1. I hate thug bullies says:

    Gangs suck the life out of the communities they hassle and prey on. They should b treated as terrorists in my opinion. If we are not harsh on young men who think have the right to rule by force and hurt women and children by their exploits and use force and rage to control and intimidate, then we aren’t doing ng our jobs as citizens to protect our neighborhood s or children. Gangs are not cool or anything to be protected, they are nothing short of terrorist bullies who want to take and take and leave everything in ruins .

    • Kevin Carty says:

      The question isn’t whether gangs suck or not. The question is whether increasing penalties for gang membership is actually a helpful way to discourage gangs. And, I think that all social science around mandatory minimum sentencing, the war on drugs, etc tells us that increasing sentencing penalties does not do a good job of discouraging crime.

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