Sunday, November 29, 2009

Weekly Opinion/Editorial
by Steve Fair
Representative Dennis Johnson, (R-Duncan) expects that one of the first bills voted on in the State House when the upcoming 2010 legislative session begins will be a bill that would increase the penalties for gang-related activities. SB #826 authored by Johnson and Senator Anthony Sykes, (R-Moore) would make recruiting members to a criminal street gang a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Any gang member or anyone convicted of a crime, as a condition of a gang membership would be sentenced to an additional five years.
The bill would also provide immunity to school employees and teachers for providing information to the district superintendent or designated school official about suspected gang activity. The superintendent would then decide or whether to act on the information by having the student talk with a counselor to try to prevent the student from joining a gang or by giving the information to law enforcement officers.

But some believe SB #826 takes the wrong approach to the gang problem. At a recent joint meeting of the Oklahoma Youth and Gang Violence Coordinating Council and the Oklahoma Gang Intervention Steering Committee, Representative Mike Shelton, (D-Oklahoma), said legislators "can’t arrest our way to fix the gang problem. It just needs to be a holistic approach to working with these gang members. Some of them definitely need to be in jail; some of them just need to be diverted in a different direction.”

Representative Johnson agrees that preventing young people from joining a gang is a great objective, saying, "The ultimate goal is prevention.” Prevention must start early. In an recent article in The Oklahoman, it was reported that Oklahoma City and Tulsa police officers are now seeing gang members as young as 10 years old, compared with the youngest being identified as 12 years old just three years ago. Oklahoma City officers reported that some youngsters are recruited as young as 8 years old. Oklahoma City and Tulsa officers reported "third-generation” gang members, where son, dad and grandfather all belong to the same criminal gang.

According to a recent survey in Oklahoma on gangs, gang members are using cellphones, text messaging and social medias like Facebook and YouTube to recruit members as young as second-graders. The survey indicated that only 15 of the state’s 77 counties reported no gangs in 2009 compared with 19 counties three years ago. The survey also shows there has been a two percent increase in the number of gangs in the Sooner state the past three years.

In April 2007, The U.S. Attorney General announced the expansion of the Justice Department’s Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative to include Oklahoma City. The initiative targets dangerous street gangs and promotes prevention efforts to keep communities and neighborhoods safe. The DOJ estimates there are over one million gang members in the United States with about fifteen percent of that number incarcerated. Often gang leaders run their operations from prison.

Oklahoma City police estimates there are more than 5,000 gang members in Oklahoma City, which is about one percent of the city’s total population. "Gangs are the biggest cancer across the United States, and they are eating it up from the inside out," said Police Master Sgt. Tim Hock, the lead inspector with city police's gang enforcement unit. "They're urban terrorists." The number of gang related drive-by shootings has increased five fold in Oklahoma City and tripled in rural areas in just the past five years.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, street gangs, outlaw motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs are the primary distributors of illegal drugs on the streets of the United States. Gangs also smuggle drugs into the United States and produce and transport drugs within the country. Oklahoma still has a meth problem and with drugs come gangs.
The Oklahoma Gang Investigators Association is a non-profit organization consisting of law enforcement and law-enforcement related professionals whose mission is two-fold: to share gang intelligence among our law enforcement members, and to educate the public to the violence associated with gangs. The OGIA, headquartered in Lawton, began in 1993 with a dozen dedicated police officers that met and shared intelligence regarding gang activities in their respective jurisdictions. This organization works to eliminate gang and their influence in our society.
Gangs are a problem in metro and rural Oklahoma and we can’t just ignore their presence. The argument that gang members would ignore this law just like they ignore other laws has little merit, because getting those recruiters off the street will prevent some grade schooler from becoming a gangbanger. Sykes and Johnson have authored a bill that will provide punishment for recruitment to gangs- a good first step in eliminating them.

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