In a final ceremonial push against gang violence, Governor Charlie Christ met with other supporters and local community leaders to officially sign House Bill 43, also known as the “Gang Law” in West Palm Beach on June 30.
The Criminal Gang Prevention Act updates a bill passed over 10 years ago to redefine what a criminal street gang is. It also pushes for stricter laws to prosecute gang leaders.
The new law defines a gang not as a traditional street gang but as an organized crime group that “has as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal or delinquent acts, and that consists of three or more persons who have a common name or common identifying signs, colors, or symbols and have two or more members who… engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal street gang activity.”
One fervent supporter of the law, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum explained that gangs are very different from past years. In many ways, they are much worse.
“These aren’t your traditional image of street gangs that protect their neighborhoods or their turfs,” McCollum said in a telephone interview with the South Florida Times.
“These are criminal enterprises, first; they are very different entities and the numbers have been growing in Florida for the past couple of years.”
If any group or individual meets any two of the criteria for gang membership they could be prosecuted under Florida’s new gang prevention law or a racketeering statute.
The new law enhances witness protection features for people who live near well-known street corners to dissuade intimidation in many of these communities and help locals speak out against gang activities.
It also allows for gang leaders, if prosecuted, to face life in prison if they are found “supervising or initiating any criminal-related activity.”
The state grand jury, which has prosecuted over 64 gang members in the past year and indicted a number of others, made many of the additions to the law in meetings in West Palm Beach over the past year.
At the June 30 ceremony, Crist said the law would be “putting a stake through the heart of gangs.”
McCollum added, “There will be a continued work on behalf of the communities to work with local task forces and with boys and girls clubs.”
McCollum also said he hopes to see long-term progress in three to five years, though he admits that statewide budget cuts will very much limit the number of prosecutors.
In Palm Beach County, alone there are over one hundred different gangs, though according to The Palm Beach Post, recent heightened law enforcement has seen “a 40 to 50 percent decrease in gang-related homicides.”
Throughout the state of Florida, there are thousands of gang members, and the state attorney general’s office said it is establishing rehabilitation for over 4,000 gang members currently behind bars to prevent them from either reforming gangs or recruiting members when they leave jail.
“It’s going to take a lot of work,” McCollum said. “But now that we have better laws and better enforcement, we hope to see long-term improvements and understand where we can progress from here.”
Photo: Gov. Charlie Crist