ANNAPOLIS – Gang participation is rising statewide and legislators and law enforcement officers differ on how to solve the problem.
Gang investigators say Maryland should follow the lead of 32 other states and adopt gang-related laws. Some such laws make gang recruitment illegal or tack on harsher penalties for gang members who commit crimes in conjunction with a criminal gang.
“Maryland desperately needs some gang legislation,” said Tony Avendorph, chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network, or MARGIN.
Meanwhile Maryland legislators want more information, and even the top sponsors of proposed gang legislation prefer intervention and prevention methods over tougher laws.
Montgomery and Prince George’s counties recently launched a joint county task force to clean up increasing gang activity there, and investigators point out gang crimes are a statewide concern. Law enforcement and the state’s attorneys from Montgomery and Prince George’s estimate 3,600 gang members are in Maryland, the District and Virginia.
But the General Assembly has been somewhat slow to respond to the problem, law enforcement officials say.
The only gang-related legislation to make it through the Legislature in the spring was a watered-down initiative to launch a task force to study youth gang activities, which was ultimately vetoed by the governor in May.
“The real problem is that in Maryland, at the state level, there is little interest in the issue,” said Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, a sponsor of the failed initiative and a member of the Juvenile Law Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.
“We definitely wanted a bill that would begin to focus statewide resources on gang violence … to guarantee programs and funding particularly dedicated to prevention,” she said. “We need to wake up the state.”
Youth under 21 make up 60 percent of the gang population and recruiting new members as young as 11 is a growing trend. Most at risk are poor teens of all races who are searching for belonging and have little interaction with parents or guardians, gang experts said.
“In Maryland, we have systems in place for dealing with terrorism, but nothing specific for gangs,” said the vice chairman of MARGIN, Patrick Word. “We need to arrest and put away gang members who are committing crimes now.”
Although prevention and intervention methods are good, he said, they don’t help police “get the bad guys off the streets.”
MARGIN also advocates education. Word said adding a gang awareness education program to the curriculum for students in middle school or younger could prevent youth from joining gangs.
State Police and other law enforcement agents say adopting a statewide gang member police database would make it easier to curtail rising gang problems before they explode.
They point to states like Texas and California, where databases allow law enforcement to track the movements, crimes and associations of individual gang members across regions. Gang members are expunged from the database after two years if no new crime is committed.
Others suggest a database would need to be regional in order to be effective.
Glenn Ivey, Prince George’s County state’s attorney, said “a regional database is crucial, but not including D.C. and Virginia would be a huge blind spot.”
Delegate Pauline Menes, D-Prince George’s, worries about the control of access to the database. She cautions such records might scar the reputations of juveniles, who may grow out of the gang later on.
Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger said he’s not sure if Maryland is ready to have such a database since it is such a “liberal” state.
He said he favors making gang recruitment illegal and supports enhanced penalties for gang members who commit crimes.
A 2004 bill widely supported by gang investigators to make recruitment and participation in criminal street gangs illegal, was sponsored by Prince George’s Democratic Delegates Victor Ramirez and Rosetta Parker. The bill was killed before it reached the Senate.
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he would consider gang-related legislation, but gangs have not been presented as a significant concern.
“We are not getting the message from state law enforcement that gangs are a pervasive problem in the state. If they are a high priority, that is not the message that is coming across,” Frosh said.
Maryland is experiencing the “highest documented levels of activity,” said gang specialist Sgt. Andy Eways of the Maryland State Police Homeland Security and Intelligence Bureau. Gang activity has cropped up in Washington and Frederick counties, and even in less urban corners of the state, including Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland.
“Every county will have some level of gang presence,” Eways said.
In Wicomico County, investigators say three gangs emerged there in the last year.
“We are seeing an increase of mostly juvenile gangs,” said Cpl. Mathew Cook of the Wicomico Sheriff’s Department, adding there is a trend of 12-year-olds getting tattooed and joining gangs.
Despite his veto of the task force idea, Gov. Robert Ehrlich is interested in enhanced laws, his staff said.
“The governor is committed to reducing gang violence on a statewide level, but there is still the question of how to do it,” said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman.
Gutierrez, Ramirez and Menes are proponents of after-school programs and community-based prevention methods. They advocate finding alternative activities for youth.
But Ramirez says enhanced sentencing is unnecessary. “I think there are plenty of laws in the books already … If you kill someone that is already a crime,” he said.
Ramirez focused on finding productive outlets for youth to invest their energy, saying gang activities are the symptoms of larger social problems.
James Dula, director of Health and Human Services for Prince George’s County, who served on the bicounty task force, echoed that opinion. “It will take more than just law enforcement,” he said, “but the entire community… to solve the gang problem.”