The inconvenient truth about “anti-gang” legislation

By: - May 28, 2008 9:32 am

One of the smartest and most professional journalists around the state legislature is Scott Mooneyham of The Insider. Not only does Mooneyham do an excellent job of keeping his reporting and opinion work separate, he is keenly skilled at seeing and slicing through the b.s. I don't always agree with everything he says, but most of the time he's on the money. Case in point: his column from yesterday's "Insider Update" on the absurd "anti-gang" bill that's working its way through the legislature. I hope he won't mind us reprinting it below:

How Bad Laws Are Made

By Scott Mooneyham

RALEIGH — If you want to observe a case study of how a bad law is made, rush down to the Legislative Building right now.

Here are a few ingredients: a gubernatorial election, the slaying of a popular student leader, oodles of law enforcement officers and mayors crowding into the building.

The soon-to-be law at issue would get tough on criminal gangs. It would make it a felony for anyone to be a member of a "criminal street gang" while participating in "a pattern of criminal street gang activity." Being an organizer or recruiter of such a gang would be a higher grade felony.

The law defines a "criminal street gang" as any ongoing group or association of three or more people which has as one of "its primary activities the commission of one or more felonies."

With such remarkable language and circular definitions, college fraternities should hope that North Carolina lawmakers never make hazing a felony. And thinking back to that advice from mamas everywhere, perhaps all of us have more reason than ever to consider with whom we associate.

Passed by the House last year, the bill was put on the shelf by the Senate. But funny things happen in an election year. Charlotte Mayor and Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory has been a big booster of the legislation. Not to be outdone on the get-tough-on-crime pandering, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, his Democratic opponent in the fall, suddenly became a big fan of the bill. Then, poof. The legislation began moving in the Senate.

In fact, the Senate approved a tougher version than the House, eliminating a provision that applied the law only to those 16 and older. The Senate did pass a companion bill aimed at preventing kids from joining gangs, but included no money for the effort.

Lost in all the tough talk at the legislature was the cost.

An estimate from legislative staff predicted one-time prison construction costs — to house an additional 370 prisoners a year — at $26 million. Ongoing operational costs to watch over those prisoners would rise to $11 million within a few years.

None of those estimates include how much the law might cost to defend in court if, and when, it's challenged based on constitutional guarantees of freedom of association.

But tough talk is mighty easy when you can avoid discussing which taxes you're going to raise or what ongoing programs you're going to cut to pay for it.

Of course, no politician wants to be accused of being weak on crime. And the slaying of UNC-Chapel Hill's student body president, Eve Carson, only created more impetus for this kind of legislation.

Carson's slaying certainly showed deficiencies in the criminal justice system.

But considering what's been learned regarding the two people accused of the crime, wouldn't the money be better spent beefing up a broken probation system?

And shouldn't North Carolina's criminal laws focus on individual criminal acts, rather than beginning down the slippery slope of criminalizing associations?

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.