The below statement can be attributed to ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins:
“While the ACLU of MS understands the need by lawmakers and state law enforcement leadership to ensure that our communities are safe, the Anti-Gang law is unnecessary and overbroad. The ACLU of MS, therefore, opposes HB 541 as ineffective and prone to result in racial bias and over-incarceration of non-violent offenders. As written the bill denies an alleged organization or member of an organization constitutionally protected right of due process.
“The broad definition of “gang member” has the potential to dramatically increase unwarranted prosecution of children and youth, especially low-income youth and youth of color. Given the natural tendency for children and youth to associate in peer groups, the breadth and vagueness of a poorly defined “gang” is very problematic.
“Gang suppression efforts can be oppressive for involved communities and are often unconstitutional. Most criteria used by law enforcement for establishing gang ties are extremely (and often unconstitutionally) vague, making them of less use for actually identifying gang members, overbroad, and an invitation to racial profiling. The bill has the potential to be used disproportionately against young African-American and Latino men who are not gang members. This sort of racial profiling has been the inevitable result in other communities that have passed similar anti-gang laws.
“HB 541 may even exacerbate criminal activity related to an asserted gang problem.
“As written, the bill may in fact increase gang cohesion and raise tensions between police forces and the community. Further, incarceration of gang members is an ineffective method of deterring future crime or gang activity. Prison institutions ‘not only weaken the capacity of incarcerated individuals to lead law abiding lives upon, release but also strengthen gang ties.’[i]
“Anti-gang laws have especially harmful effects for juveniles who are alleged to be gang members. As written, HB 541 will increase children being pulled into the adult criminal justice system. Children who are implicated in alleged gang cases can be tried in adult court. Compared to youth imprisoned in juvenile facilities, youth in adult facilities are 8 times as likely to commit suicide, 5 times as likely to be sexually assaulted, 2 times as likely to be assaulted by staff, and 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon. Recidivism rates for youth tried as adults are higher than those who remain in the juvenile system. Such youth ‘are significantly more likely to reoffend, more likely to commit violent crimes when they do reoffend, and to reoffend sooner than similar youth who go through the juvenile justice system.’[ii]
“As written, HB 541 also has a chilling effect on the First Amendment right of expressive association, which protects the ability of groups to select their membership to best express their political, social, or artistic messages. Along the same lines, the elements used to assert group identity poses restrictions on a group’s ability to make expressive decisions.
“There are better ways to address gang violence rather than simply putting more young people behind bars. Prevention and intervention techniques are the most effective and least expensive strategies for dealing with gangs. The ACLU of MS does not deny the existence of gangs and the problems they can cause. When gang members break the law, they should be punished for the crimes they commit. There are already statutes on the books for prosecuting those who commit crimes like robbery, assault, rape, homicide, and conspiracy.
“Criminalization of association is poor public policy and may very well be proven to be unconstitutional.”
[i] Greene and Pranis, p. 79. Source: Travis, Jeremy. But they all come back: Facing the challenges of prisoner reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2006.
[ii] Villarruel et al., p. 65. Source: Bishop, D. M., et al. “The transfer of juveniles to criminal court: Does it make a difference?” Crime and Delinquency, vol. 42, pp. 171-192. 1996.