Give Mississippi law enforcement another weapon against gangs

There is a class of murderous outlaws living among us on the Mississippi Coast.

Some call them street gangs, but this is no “West Side Story.”

They are thugs. They rule their minions by fear. They infest our communities with drugs. They raise capital by stealing, they deface our businesses and schools to mark their territory, and they will kill those who stand in their way.

For example, Latin King gang member Josh Vallum beat transgender teen Mercedes Williamson to death with a hammer. He feared his Latin Kings superiors would find out about their relationship and kill him. He’s serving life.

Law enforcement has been hitting these criminals hard. But they could use some help.

A bill before the Legislature that would impose stiffer sentences on offenders who commit crimes in advancement of gang activities would be one more tool at their disposal.

“This is organized crime and should be treated as such,” Gov. Phil Bryant told The Clarion-Ledger’s Therese Apel.

We agree. So does District Attorney Tony Lawrence, the prosecutor for George, Greene and Jackson counties.

He worked with Sens. Gray Tollison of Oxford and Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula on SB 2027. It’s a bill with some teeth — longer sentences and higher fines for crimes committed as part of a gang’s activities. It also lays out clear criteria for identifying gang members and takes aim at the gangs’ recruiting ground, the state’s prisons. Gang activity in prison would end an inmate’s chance of earning any sentence reduction.

Perhaps that will get their attention. Perhaps we need an even-stronger deterrent.

This is a complex 28-page bill. But it’s available for lawmakers to study now. In the past, they have complained large bills are often presented to them with little or no warning.

We’d say when the governor speaks favorably of a bill, there’s a good chance that bill is going to make it out of committee for the full Senate’s consideration.

“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,” Bryant told The Clarion-Ledger. “And there should be.”

We suggest lawmakers take a good, hard look at this bill. Study it. Enhance it if you can. But in the end, give law enforcement officers another effective tool to help cleanse our state of this scourge.

The editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists and cartoonists are their own.