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Gang violence legislation heading to House floor

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FRANKFORT—The first significant revision of Kentucky’s criminal gang laws since Prohibition received the approval of a House committee today.

House Bill 169, sponsored by Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, would crack down on the growing recruitment of criminal gang members in the state by making it a felony for adults to engage in criminal gang recruitment. Benvenuti told the House Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill, that the crime is now a misdemeanor but that stronger penalties are needed.

“Right now, we have 18, 19, 20-year-old men aggressively recruiting young children ages 8, 9, 10, and 11 into gangs,” said the Lexington lawmaker, who filed similar legislation in 2017 under HB 315. “They also recruit women, and they traffic those young women.”

Criminal gang recruitment by a minor would be a misdemeanor for a first offense but would rise to felony level for all other offenses under the bill.

Other sections of HB 169 would define “criminal gang”, “pattern of criminal gang activity,” change the number of people considered to be a “criminal gang syndicate” from five to three or more to mirror federal law, and outline judicial treatment of criminal gang-related cases.

“We have put many, many protections in place in this bill, but we retain the most important protections for the citizens of the Commonwealth,” Benvenuti told the committee.

Many believe that gang violence is a big-city issue, he said. But Benvenuti said criminal gangs are found across Kentucky.

“This bill is aimed at making sure that those folks who do that are held to a true criminal standard and, importantly, we believe will deter folks from coming in and preying on our children,” Benvenuti stated.

Among those who shared their concerns with HB 169 was the Rev. Dr. Donald K. Gillett with the Kentucky Council of Churches. Rev. Gillett said the “wider net” cast by HB 169 to crack down on criminal gangs could have the unintended consequence of incriminating someone based largely on where they live or who they know.

He called the bill “a criminal justice maze with few ways out.”

Several law enforcement officers, however, spoke in favor of the bill. Joining them was Fayette Commonwealth Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn who called HB 169 “specific,” with a heavy burden of proof.

“But in those cases where people need to be prosecuted for their actions, this will help,” Red Corn said.

HB 169 now goes to the full House for consideration.

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