JACKSON — The Mississippi Senate voted Wednesday to set penalties for people who lure others into gang activities. Black lawmakers raised concerns that the proposal could lead to racial profiling.
Republican Sen. Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula said investigators are requesting the bill because they say gangs are a problem in many parts of the state, including inside prisons.
“We don’t want to admit that we have a problem that we do,” Wiggins said.
If Senate Bill 2868 becomes law, luring a young person into gang activity would be a form of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A violation would be punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Several black senators said they worry that African-Americans who are not in any kind of gang could be targeted for punishment.
The bill identifies gang members as at least three people involved in criminal activity who identify themselves by a common name, slogan, tattoo or other physical marking; a common style or color of clothing or hair; and a shared hand sign or gesture.
“My concern with that is within the black community, we have a tendency to utilize many of those features, and we are just everyday good folks. … It’s not an indication that we are in any kind of gang,” said Democratic Sen. Willie Simmons of Cleveland.
Wiggins replied that he would not ask fellow senators to pass the bill if he thought it would be used to unfairly target any group.
“The profiling is wrong,” Wiggins said. “The law enforcement I know don’t do that.”
Senators voted 35-14 to pass the bill, which goes to the House for more debate.
Another bill awaiting consideration in the House would require five to 15 additional years in prison for any proven gang member convicted of a felony. Prisoners couldn’t be released early from the extra sentence.
House Bill 541 also would designate any gang-related crime as a violent offense, meaning offenders would have to serve half of their sentences in prison before becoming eligible for parole, instead of a quarter of that time. Other provisions would bar sentence reductions for gang-related crimes.