State Politics

State Senate takes up bill to toughen penalties for gang crimes

Forty-two members of the Aryan Brotherhood went to prison in 2016 after a 2½-year investigation into a RICO case involving drugs, conspiracy and murder.

Josh Vallum, 28, a Latin King, pleaded guilty to murder in the 2015 beating death of transgender 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson of Theodore, Alabama, who once considered him a boyfriend.

In 2015, “Operation Bite Back,” the deep investigation into the death of Jessica Chambers, a 19-year-old woman burned alive on Dec. 6, 2014, in Courtland, turned up 17 suspects accused of being involved in the Black Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, and Sipp Mob street gangs. None of them was directly linked to her death, but Quinton Tellis, a member of the Insane Vice Lords gang, has been indicted for capital murder in her slaying and is awaiting trial.

Johnny Robinson Jr., the man who pleaded guilty last week to shooting Clarksdale Police Cpl. Derrick Couch in the face, is also a Vice Lord.

Officials say gang crime is on the rise all over Mississippi and all around the rest of the country. A bill before the Mississippi Senate would add enhanced penalties to crimes committed by validated gang members, and Gov. Phil Bryant and others say it’s a major strike in the fight against violent crime in the state.

“This is organized crime, and we should treat it as such,” Bryant told The Clarion-Ledger. “This bill will help enhance the penalties. Just like when you’re caught committing a crime with a gun, there’s an enhanced penalty, if you’re caught as a member of a gang related to a criminal activity, there’ll be an enhanced penalty. And there should be.”

​Bryant said parts of Senate Bill 2027 also deal with gang activity inside the Department of Corrections, where he said there are more than 2,500 identified members of the Gangster Disciples alone. The Aryan Brotherhood, Vice Lords, and other prominent gangs are also very active within the corrections system, he said.

“Not only can they elicit their criminal acts from inside if they have communication with visitors and other forms of communication, but they threaten and abuse other inmates,” he said. “It’s a real problem there that we’re working on on a regular basis. This bill will help by saying, ‘If you’re involved in gang activities inside the Department of Corrections, it will prevent you from being paroled or receiving any type of good time.’ You won’t be paroled and you won’t get good time and some of the rights and benefits you may be afforded can be taken away.”

SB 2027, one of three bills proposed this legislative session that target gang crime, is an improvement on last year’s Senate Bill 2206. District Attorney Tony Lawrence worked with the Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators and the Mississippi Prosecutors Association to streamline some of the language and clarify some of the major points.

“There is an increasing gang problem along the Gulf Coast. These three bills are designed to give prosecutors the tools that they need to address this growing and violent problem,” Lawrence said. “Gangs have evolved, and these bills address the problems we have seen with gang members in the criminal justice system.”

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, a former prosecutor who helped author the bill, said it’s time for people to understand that gangs are not an urban problem or a minority problem. They are in every community in the state, officials said.

“”There are things people need to know, like that there are initiations to get into gangs, and one of those is that they have to go kill somebody,” he said.

Jimmy Anthony, vice president of the Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators, simplified the idea behind the bill.

“Basically all this (proposed) law has done is take the RICO act for organized crime and adopted it to state statute. This is going to be the key to curbing the violence we see on a daily basis because the penalties will be stiffer,” he said. “It’s a major step in stopping a lot of the violence we deal with every day. They do violence to garner respect. They don’t earn it, they demand it, and they do it through violence.”

Wiggins said one of the gang-related problems he wants to target with legislation is the intimidation of witnesses.

“What they do is threaten witnesses, in some cases have killed witnesses, so it strengthens the intimidation of witnesses obstruction of justice laws. People don’t have trust in their system, in the court system, if they’re a witness and being threatened and intimidated. And that’s why it’s so important. As a prosecutor, you can’t make your cases if you don’t have witnesses,” he said.

Gang activity influences lesser crimes than homicide, too. ABC Agent Daniel Dunlap, a member of the MAGI gang investigators association, said he sees it when doing routine investigations in the nine-county area he works in north Mississippi of such things as bootlegging and underage drinking.

“I see the nexus that is going on with gangs,” he said.

Agents often find the businesses they enter are gang-run, which makes for a possibly unsafe environment.

“When we go into a club or a house with bulletproof vests, guns, and flashlights, they don’t know that we’re there for a misdemeanor sale charge,” he said.

While some might see complications in knowing who the gang members are in order to apply the enhanced crimes, MAGI investigators said it’s a process they’ve been working on for quite some time.

“A big part of this is going to be proper and legal documentation of gang members, and MAGI is well ahead of the game because we’ve been doing this for several years,” Anthony said. “When the law goes through, it won’t be as intimidating or complicated as it sounds because the MAGI has already been validating people for several years and free training will be available to local agencies on how the documentation is done.”

Hattiesburg has a criminal gang activity charge it uses from time to time. Lt. Jon Traxler said anything the Legislature can do to strengthen the ability to keep confirmed gang members off the streets is welcome.

“Any time we investigate a crime, no matter what crime it is, if we can tie it back to some gang activity, we will use the statutes to press those charges,” he said.

It boils down not just to gangs being organized crime, but it could be argued it’s domestic terrorism, Bryant said. As such, he said the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are also in on some of the plans to combat gang crime.

“It’s the same type of thing you see in ISIS, and people in Mississippi need to understand this is not some type of social club,” Bryant said. “So if your 10-year-old comes in with a gang sign and thinks it’s really cool that he saw some 18-year-old in a gang, I hope we’ll be able to respond that this is organized crime, this is nothing more than the Mafia or La Cosa Nostra was in the 1950s and ’60s.”

Children are too often the targets, gang investigators said. The seeds of gang activity can be found as young as middle school.

“What else makes a normal 13-year-old kid think about shooting someone?” Anthony asked.

  Comments