By CHRISTOPHER M. MATTHEWS
ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 15, 2009) - Calls for a tougher Maryland Gang Prosecution Act got a lukewarm response from Democrats at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday.
Maryland's Gang Prosecution Act was passed in 2007 in the hopes of curtailing growing gang membership. But the law has only resulted in one conviction and fewer than 10 cases have been prosecuted under the statute.
Harford County Assistant State's Attorney Joel Muneses, who has tried two cases under the act, said the reason for that is simple - the law's structure makes it incredibly difficult to get a conviction.
"I tried prosecuting under the act twice and each time was, how can I say this, less than stellar," Muneses said in a phone interview.
He said there are too many elements of proof required to obtain a conviction, and the elements are overly complicated. Muneses also said that if individuals are convicted under the law, judges can give them concurrent sentences for the gang-related charges at their discretion, so members sometimes do not serve extra time for their gang affiliation.
Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy echoed these criticisms at Tuesday's hearing and called for the legislation to be amended.
"We need an improved law that includes enhanced penalties and a number of other things to give prosecutors the tools they need," Jessamy said.
John McCarthy, State's Attorney for Montgomery County, said the number and type of offenses that fall under the law need to be increased. He also recommended that the state establish a uniform definition of what constitutes a gang member.
Finally, McCarthy said legislators need to "put some teeth into the penalty section," and remove judicial discretion when it comes to concurrent sentences.
Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario, Jr., D - Prince George's, was not entirely convinced, but said he was open to reviewing some parts of the law.
"After hearing you, [the legislation you currently have] doesn't sound too bad," said Vallario.
In particular, Vallario was reluctant to remove judicial discretion over concurrent sentences.
"We don't like to take discretion away from judges, I can tell you that," he said.
Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons, D - Montgomery County, expressed concern that not enough emphasis was being put on prevention programs designed to deter youths from entering gangs in the first place.
"I worry that all we're going to do is create more draconian codes for 19-year-olds and not address the underlying symptoms," Simmons said.
State's Attorney Jessamy downplayed Simmons' fears. She argued adamantly that prosecutors would only use the reformed legislation to target gang leaders.
"It's not the 19-year-old kid who's being induced to do something, it's the people who orchestrate, who threaten , who intimidate, who make it happen and keep the kids from getting out, it's those individuals."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.