Hispanic Leaders Wary of NY Senate Anti-Gang Bill

Gang graffiti in Queens, where a man was attacked by a group of youths. (Photo via El Diario)

On Monday, almost two weeks after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a forceful initiative to end gang MS-13, which has spread terror mainly on Long Island, the State Senate approved a law that seeks to join the fight against gangs – also known in Latin America by their slang term “maras” – which have ended the life of at least 15 youths in the last year and a half.

The Senate passed the “Criminal Street Gang Enforcement and Prevention Act” by 48 votes to 13, to criminalize belonging to a gang, increase penalties for gang-related crimes and also provide for gang prevention programs in schools.

Republican Sen. Martin Golden, from Brooklyn, who authored the bill, defended the new rule saying that it is crucial to prosecute gangs to the full extent of the law to prevent the deaths of more innocent youths and put an end to their crimes.

“Gangs are responsible for 30 percent of violent crimes in New York,” said the legislator. “As a former New York City police officer, I know firsthand that the presence of gangs on the streets of New York has and continues to destroy communities, destroy schools, and destroy families. It is time that we create stricter penalties, along with educational programs, to reduce gang violence across New York state.”

Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan applauded the support the initiative received, adding that it is a way to prevent youths from being recruited by gangs and dismantle the groups’ violent, dangerous activity.

“Neighborhoods that have been particularly hard-hit by gang violence on Long Island and in communities across the state need better resources to help eliminate gangs. […] Sen. Golden’s project has a comprehensive approach to protect our families,” said the Republican.

“The wrong approach”

Some political leaders and activists did not look favorably upon the initiative, which will be evaluated by the State Assembly next month. They cite fears that the excuse of a gang crackdown will lead to criminalizing innocent youths.

“Even though the street gang problem is evident and I support the efforts to combat them, I voted against the bill because its definition of gang member is too ambiguous,” said Sen. José Peralta, from Jackson Heights, where some cells of these groups operate. “This could lead to the presumption that three young men talking on a street corner or in a park are gang members. They could be catching innocent people, and that is something we cannot allow.”

Legislator Mónica Martínez, from Suffolk County, where the gang MS-13 – also called “Mara Salvatrucha”– brutally killed four young people last month, pointed out that it is crucial for the government to invest more in communities.

“Greater punishments are important, but they are not a panacea to penalize and dissuade those who terrorize our communities,” said the Long Island politician. “We need to invest in our youth programs in order to address the root of the problem. Sometimes, lack of opportunity leads our teens to experiment with situations that may lead to negative consequences.”

Sen. Marisol Alcántara, another lawmaker who opposed the bill, called the piece of legislation “the wrong approach,” and expressed concern about funding being given to anti-gang groups.

“Increasing sentences and jailing more youths will not effectively tackle the scourge of gangs in our communities,” said the political leader, pointing out that it is urgent to invest in education for teens who feel that the only path for them is to join a gang. “We could be creating a perverse incentive to stop a growing number of alleged gang members, risking taking innocent youths to court and then to jail.”

Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, executive director of the organization Long Island Wins, said that the government must listen to the community to find better ways to deal with its problems. “If the State Senate wants to approve a comprehensive anti-gang legislative package, it needs to include financial support and resources for youths immigrating to Long Island from Central America,” she said.

Michael Whyland, spokesman for the office of State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, said that they will be evaluating the initiative in a few weeks. Those opposing the bill are hoping that it will not proceed.

“The Senate bill will be reviewed, but it is likely that it will be negotiated alongside other projects in the last weeks of the legislative session in June,” said Whyland.

Facts about bill S2410

The law:

  • Seeks to halt recruitment of new gang members.
  • Classifies the crime of being a gang member.
  • Increases penalties on individuals who belong to gangs.
  • Prosecutes individuals who encourage gang activity or help recruit members for gangs.
  • Creates a curriculum to combat gangs in schools.
  • Schools would consult with the Division of Criminal Justice Services to implement a model plan focused on gang violence and prevention.
  • Creates the new Criminal Street Gang Prevention Fund.
  • Would be partially funded through forfeited assets obtained after convictions for gang activity.

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