Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Unfortunately I'm swamped trying to get my show done because I'm on vacation Friday and covering President Bush tomorrow so all I got is my story from today...

RALEIGH -- It appears North Carolina will put gang laws on the books for the first time in state history.

Mayors, police, and lawmakers joined forces Wednesday to announce they are close to an agreement. Right now, North Carolina law does not address gangs specifically.

Statewide there are an estimated 550 gangs with more than 14,000 members.

"Gangs are recruiting better than law enforcement agencies are," Gastonia Police Chief Terry Sult said. "These bills before the legislature address that recruiting effort on the gang level."

Wednesday the Senate passed those bills unanimously inching them closer to becoming law.

The proposals define gangs for the first time, make it illegal to belong to a gang, and target gang leaders.

"This has been a four year battle and I'm glad to see a lot of converts," Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said. "The four letter word gang is now being confronted in the state capitol and I'm glad to see a lot of people get on board and recognize this is a life and death issue."

Mayor McCrory is making it a top issue in his campaign for governor. Tuesday his opponent, Lieutenant Governor Beverly Perdue said it's on the top of her legislative list as well.

While the news conference was essentially billed as a celebration that these new gang laws are likely going to pass, not everyone is supportive of these ideas.

One concern still undecided is how to punish gang members under 16 years old and if these laws will have an impact beyond filling up already crowded prisons.

"We're talking about severe criminal sanctions and I would argue that the acts we're trying to prevent are already illegal," NC Policy Watch's Chris Fitzsimon said. "If we need more police officers, more district attorneys, more magistrates, more prison beds, then we should do those things."

Attorney General Roy Cooper supports gang legislation but wants gang prevention funding as well.

"We are in a battle with gangs for the hearts and minds of our children and we must invest in education," Cooper said. "We must invest in after school programs."

Despite concerns, it appears after years of negotiations, lawmakers will make it illegal to belong to a gang in North Carolina.

Lawmakers are expected to negotiate differences between the House and Senate bills next week. It would also need the governor's signature.

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