New Gang Law Punishes Based On Affiliation Not Actions

Posted by Michael Zarrella | Jul 13, 2014 | 0 Comments

The Rhode Island General Assembly recently enacted RIGL 12-19-39.  This legislation can be categorized as "feel good" criminal legislation dealing with gangs. 

The new law adds a consecutive ten (10) year sentence to any crime if it is considered gang related.  Clearly, the punishment is based solely on an affiliation and not based on criminal actions.  The interpretation of what a gang constitutes is not clear and can be subject to many different interpretations.  In addition, this law can clearly be used in a prejudicial manner.  Groups of friends in the affluent suburbs may not qualify as a gang while another group of friends in the city may be construed as a gang.  Almost no towns in the rural areas have specified gang units of the police to identify gangs in their areas.  Conversely, many of the police departments in the inner city are quick to label all young adults as being associated with certain gangs.  The legislation at hand will punish inner city defendants with a much more disproportionate sentence than similar individuals living outside of the inner city.  For instance, a group of individuals in the inner city who are arrested for a narcotics nuisance (a place commonly used for use of illicit drugs) would be looking at a sentence of fifteen (15) years while a similar group in the outlying rural areas would only be looking at a maximum of five (5) years. 

Another problem with this legislation is the challenges it will create when trying a gang related crime in a courtroom.  This legislation states that the gang's  primary activities would involve the commission of criminal or delinquent acts.  This may bring into evidence  numerous "bad acts" or crimes that a defendant is not involved in to prove that the gang that he is alleged to be in qualifies as a gang under the statute.  The introduction of this evidence may make it impossible for a defendant to receive a fair trial on a charge he is facing based on unrelated crimes that he was never involved in.  In short, if a jury hears that a certain gang is involved in drugs and prostitution that evidence may be admissible at a defendant's felony shoplifting charge even though that defendant was never involved with drugs or prostitution. 

It is indisputable that gangs are a problem in Rhode Island.  However, "feel good" legislation such as RIGL 12-19-30 as passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly casts a net that is too wide and will often lead to innocent people being convicted of charges they may not have done in addition it will lead to greater sentences for people that may not deserve them. 

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