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The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

HB 240 will not protect children from gang violence

Gangs are bad, right? While you may be eager to respond with an enthusiastic “yes” and jump behind any legislation that aims to address problems associated with gangs, it is important to first consider the far-reaching implications of these policies. 

Republican Senator Brice Wiggins is leading the brigade of legislators who are aiming to address an apparent increased gang activity in Mississippi. 

Even though Wiggins’ Senate Bill 2027 died in committee, he continues to advocate on behalf of another bill, HB 240, which would achieve a similar cause of broadening the definition of gang activity and increasing penalties for those associated. 

Although tough-on-crime rhetoric tends to make one feel good about reducing crime, harsher criminal penalties are not always the best answer, especially when dealing with an issue as complex as gang activity.

Members of the legislature who support these broadened definitions point to the level of gang activity occurring in Mississippi. In an interview with The Clarion Ledger, Governor Phil Bryant compared this local gang activity with the actions of ISIS and having organization that is similar to the Mafia. 

However, a study authorized by the Mississippi Legislature in 2014 found that both the rate of gang activity and the organization of gang culture has changed. 

The $500,000 study was conducted by BOTEC Analysis Corporation upon the state legislature’s request and looked closely at the varying opinions and recent presence of gangs in low income communities around Jackson. 

BOTEC stated the cause of crime was not rooted in the typical idea of gang retaliation but if anything, was a result of loosely connected groups of people that do not necessarily fall under the definition of gang. 

BOTEC stated, “Experts agree that the term ‘gang’ is unimportant in addressing crime problems.” BOTEC’s report recommended evidence-based practices of addressing crime rates and states the best precaution against gang activity is improving conditions such as poverty and high drop-out rates, which perpetuate the problem. 

After authorizing the $500,00 study to examine gang activity and causes of crime, it is nonsensical for the legislature to then pass policy that completely ignores the study’s findings. 

Not only does it reject the report’s findings, but it advocates for policies that would worsen the issue of gang involvement and criminal activity.

BOTEC’s report additionally warned that increased jail time would not reduce recidivism rates among offenders. BOTEC cautions, “If jails are a breeding ground for gang involvement, minimizing the length of pre-trial detention should be a priority to ward off further reason for young men to affiliate.” 

Hyper-criminalization is a giant step backwards in a time where Mississippi must make reducing the incarcerated population a priority. 

The problem with bills such as HB 240 is they broaden the definitions of gangs and gang members in a way that places too much discretion in the hands of police and prosecutors. Descriptors such as, “style or color of clothing or hairstyle, common name, hand sign, slogan, or graffiti,” are used to identify gang involvement. 

This grants prosecutors the authority to apply heightened punishment on individuals who fall into these broad categories and can also lead to overregulation by police. 

Some states maintain gang databases based on a range of factors. In California, an audit of its database found that 42 individuals who “admitted to being members” were under 1-year-old according to a 2016 Buzzfeed article. 

More importantly, this is not the first time, and doubtfully is it that last, that lawmakers have used rhetoric calling for tough on crime laws to disguise a policy that will only further systemic bias towards a particular race. 

HB 240, although carefully concealed in a bill that appears to protect children from gang violence, will do little to offer a solution for gang activity in Mississippi and will work in blatant disregard of BOTEC’s findings. 

A bill that fails to recognize the complexity of crime by describing gang activity with sweeping, overstated generalizations is not a bill that truly represents the best interest of the state, nor is it one that adequately protects our state’s children from criminal engagement. 

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HB 240 will not protect children from gang violence