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Va. seeks wider anti-gang laws

By David Macaulay
The Daily Press

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — To those fighting the growth of gangs on the Peninsula, the figures are stark: There are almost 3,000 gang members in the area. And just two have been brought to justice under gang legislation enacted by the General Assembly seven years ago.

The statistics are fueling moves for a widening of state laws that would allow courts to increase the severity of a sentence if gang membership can be proved. Spearheading the effort, along with the Newport News Police Department, is the Partnership on Youth Violence, a group established last year in response to a steady rise in youth violence since 2004.

An upsurge in gang activity could be one factor behind the 2007 Newport News homicide toll of 30, Newport News Police Chief James Fox said.

So this month, Sabrina Jones, regional manager of the partnership, met Elizabeth Kersey, director of Inter-governmental Affairs for Hampton, to discuss options.

The partnership covers Hampton, Newport News, Williamsburg, Poquoson, and Gloucester, James and York counties. It's concerned that there have been only two prosecutions on the Peninsula under the statute since it was enacted in 2001.

— Michael Raheen Adams of York County was charged in gang-related robberies in the summer of 2005. The 22-year-old pleaded guilty this year to attempted robbery, use of a firearm in a robbery and participation in a criminal street gang. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

— Robert Terrell Grant, another gang member, was sentenced in York County in November to 23 years in prison for a string of robberies in the summer of 2005.

"The legislation right now is really broad," Jones said.

Police officers and prosecutors want to see more predicate acts (related offenses that can be used to trigger the legislation) added to it.

Jones said prosecutors faced a challenge in proving intent under the legislation.

"They are talking about adding more acts that are gang-related: assaults, robberies and burglaries," she said. "It's hard to do one violent and one nonviolent act. If someone commits an assault and they've never written a bad check or done anything else, you still can't prove it under that legislation."

Jones and Kersey discussed suggested changes, such as removing the need for a nonviolent offense as well as a violence offense to trigger the legislation.

"It would be enough if it was just a violent offense," Jones said.

She also thinks that some of the tests in the legislation needed to establish gang membership,such as dress and the use of gang symbols, are outdated.

"Increasingly, people are no longer wearing the colors and making the signs," she said.

Although the partnership has missed the deadline to suggest amendments for the current legislative session, Jones said, it's interested in getting changes on the agenda in the summer.

Jones thinks that gang activity has increased in recent years on the Peninsula, and the trend is reflected in youth violence statistics.

"It got to the point where my board — which is the police chiefs and school superintendents of the seven different jurisdictions in this partnership — got together," she said. "They had seen quite a rise, particularly among juveniles and violent crime."

During the past three years, juvenile crime has risen 14 percent. Crimes committed by juveniles from 2004 to 2006 in the seven areas rose from 1,860 to 2,123, according to the partnership's statistics.

"We do have a number of gangs that we have identified," Jones said. "I think there are 150 sets total that we have identified, as well as 750 youth that are involved. There are probably a couple of thousand adult members."

Ray Feliciano, who has been working as a gang investigator with Hampton police for two years, said they were widespread.

He said there had also been an increase in "home-grown" gangs, linked to specific parts of the city.

Newport News has had an anti-gang unit for 14 years. It was set up to reflect a perception that the police picked up on as long ago as the mid-1980s, when gangs were becoming more violent and organized.

"I've been here for 36 years. Gangs have always been here in all that time, " said Newport News Police Capt. Marvin Evans, commander of the organized crime division.

Evans acknowledged problems with the state's anti-gang statutes.

"The biggest problem that we have with the gang statutes is: Is an individual committing a robbery because he's a thief or because he's a member of a gang?" he said. "If he's committing a robbery because he's a thief, that's one thing. If he's committing it because he's a member of a gang, is he doing it to further a role in the gang or to provide a benefit to the gang?"

Evans said it was difficult for police to say a shooting was provoked by gang membership unless suspects said they shot someone because "he wore a blue bandanna in a red-bandanna neighborhood."

"That's not likely to happen," Evans said.

Cathy Bell has worked on the Newport News anti-gang unit for more than four years. She said it was "a bit challenging" to enforce the legislation.

She said the Police Department had raised concerns about the statute that had been submitted for consideration to the General Assembly.

Newport News police declined to give specific details on the changes that they were requesting.

Evans said that typically, youngsters were looking for some sense of belonging and structure that they thought they lacked in their homes.

There's also a move to widen the legislation to cover offenses on the Internet, Jones said.

Last year, Derrell Blaine Jones, 16, of Williamsburg pleaded guilty to making death threats against another teen via MySpace .com.

He received a one-year sentence under the terms of his plea agreement, and prosecutors dropped a marijuana possession charge. But he will serve nine more years in prison for violating his probation on a 2006 conviction for a gang-related maiming.

Although threats on MySpace com are a crime, they aren't covered by the gang legislation.

But Del. Dave Albo,R-Fairfax — who chairs the Courts of Justice committee — said it was important for the definitions to remain narrow in the gang legislation to ensure that civil liberties weren't infringed upon.

Albo, instrumental in getting the legislation passed, said that extra predicate acts had been added and that he thought there was scope for additional ones. But he said he wasn't aware of any demands from the Peninsula to add offenses.

Copyright 2008 Daily Press

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