On gangs, new power sought

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Maryland?s state prosecutors lobbied lawmakers Thursday for the flexibility to take entire gangs to court in criminal cases where current law allows only individual gang members to be tried.

"We do have gangs in our jails, on our streets, and they?re not confined to hamlets, cities or towns," said Attorney General Doug Gansler, who supports the proposed legislation. "What we?ve confronted as prosecutors is an inability to prosecute them as a gang."

Gansler, Baltimore City State?s Attorney Patricia Jessamy and state prosecutors briefed the House Judiciary Committee Thursday on legislation that would give prosecutors the additional power to prosecute gangs according to adapted racketeering and organized crime laws.

So far, 31 states have enacted some form of statewide laws to deal with gang-motivated criminal activity such as murder-for-hire and assaults that take place as part of gang initiations. Under those laws, the gang members who conspire to commit the crime could also be charged along with the members who actually committed the crime.

Jeff Wennar, a gang prosecutor in Montgomery County, said regional statistics show about 500 admitted gang members on the Eastern Shore and in western Maryland, 5,800 gang members in Washington?s suburbs and about 3,400 gang members in the Baltimore region.

Wennar said many police departments hesitate to admit that their areas have a gang problem because of political and financial concerns.

"The gang problem is statewide," Jessamy said. "Any strategy has to be statewide. Maryland is one of only 11 states that has no statewide gang legislation."

If the proposed legislation wins approval from the General Assembly, Gansler said almost all of the gang-motivated crimes prosecuted in Maryland would involve many more co-defendants, but the penalties for the crimes would not change because they were gang-related.

stracy@baltimoreexaminer.com

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