SCARBOROUGH — Maine must do more to prevent the growth of criminal street gangs, whose numbers are rising in rural states like this one where they can operate under the radar.
That’s the basic premise underlying a bill reintroduced for the second session of the 125th Legislature by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough.
“An Act To Define, Prevent and Suppress Gang Activity in the State of Maine” would criminalize gang recruitment and add up to four years to prison sentences for crimes committed by gang members.
“Youths can be brought into a gang and paid big money to commit crimes,” Volk said in a recent email. “If apprehended, they receive lighter sentences because of their age, while the adult-age gang members who recruited them get off scot-free.”
The bill also outlines how law enforcement should identify gang members. It would allow a person who meets two of the following criteria to be identified as a gang member:
• Admission of gang membership.
• Identification as a gang member by a police officer, a parent or guardian, or another “reliable informant.”
• Adopting a gang’s style of dress, tattoos, clothing or other markers.
• A record of arrest while in the company of known gang members.
Volk submitted the bill on behalf of Eric Berry, president of the Maine Gang Task Force. Berry also works at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, a South Portland juvenile detention and rehabilitation facility for boys.
According to an FBI survey, there are 1,000-4,000 gang members in Maine, Berry told legislators in an October email. According to the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment Report, 20 gangs – including outlaw motorcycle clubs, the infamous Bloods and MS-13 – are in Maine. The report also said that gang proliferation in New England is growing at an alarming rate.
“These numbers will have increased by the time the 2012 report comes out,” Berry wrote. “… We hope that Maine doesn’t allow this to worsen and that the message is gang members aren’t welcome in the state of Maine and if they are here, they will be dealt with.”
Volk said that targeting recruitment is important because it would allow police and other law enforcement agencies to target gang’s ringleaders, who may have ascended the hierarchy to the point where they direct criminal activity without engaging in it.
Her bill will enable police and Berry’s task force to use recruitment as a tool against senior gang members, Volk said.
“If you’re a drug dealer and you take care of business, you might use youth as runners to sell drugs,” she said. “If the kid gets caught and says his neighbor got him involved in the gang, then police can question him.”
Volk said that under current state law there’s no incentive for gang members to cooperate with police. But if they can be charged with gang recruitment, they may open up to officers and point them even higher up the gang ladder.
Much of that recruitment occurs inside Maine prisons, Volk said. There, prisoners from out of state are recruiting Mainers, who take part in gang-related crimes once they’re released, she said.
The FBI report quoted by Berry and Volk also said that gangs in New England are combining their human- and drug-trafficking operations, using women to move drugs and engage in prostitution, both of which fund gang activities.
“As a woman and as a mother, human trafficking terrifies me,” Volk said. “Women who are already under the radar, like people who are undocumented, might already be in trouble.”
Volk’s bill is modeled after a similar law passed in New Hampshire in 2008, and the gang identification guidelines are modeled after similar ones adopted in Kansas. Volk said New Hampshire’s law has pushed gang members into Maine, making it imperative to pass her bill as soon as possible.
“It is time for Maine to send the message that criminal gangs are not welcome here, and if they are here, they will be dealt with severely,” she said.