A controversial legislative proposal developed by a secretive police group would send an individual to prison for up to 40 years if he or she is convicted of asking someone to join a criminal street gang. The "gang" could have as few as three members.
The bill, LD 1707, will have a public hearing on Friday, January 27, before the legislative Criminal Justice Committee. Faced with mounting criticism, its proponents have begun backtracking on some provisions.
One of these provisions would require judges to add from one to four years onto sentences for various crimes, including drug crimes, if the convicted person can be associated with a gang.
In a letter to the Criminal Justice Committee, the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the bill is unnecessary: It "criminalizes conduct that is already a crime under Maine law, the crime of criminal conspiracy."
In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said such a "superfluous" bill is why the United States has the world's highest incarceration rate.
"If I had had the opportunity to take my name off the bill, I would have," said one of the bill's cosponsors, Senator Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat.
Alfond claimed the bill had been "totally misrepresented" to him by its sponsor, Representative Amy Volk, a Scarborough Republican. He said he thought that the bill authorized a study of gangs and that no criminal charges were in it:
The bill allows "style of dress or use of hand or other signs, tattoos or other physical markings" to be used by a court to establish gang membership. Other acceptable evidence includes if a person is identified as a gang member by a policeman, parent, or "reliable informant" and lives in or hangs out in a gang's neighborhood.
"Sending people to prison based on how they dress or where they spend time undermines our First Amendment rights," said ACLU Maine's Alysia Melnick.
Another opponent, Judy Garvey, representing the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC), said in a statement: "In working with hundreds of inmates over many years, we see forms of group affiliation over and over again, but to date have not encountered a so-called 'gang member' in or outside of prison."
She added: "To define a peer group as a 'gang' because of tattoos copied from Facebook or hand movements seen in movies or on You Tube is erroneous."
The bill is being pushed by the Maine Gang Task Force, composed of local, state, and federal law-enforcement and corrections officials. Its president, Eric Berry, a corrections officer at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, told the Phoenix he wouldn't identify task force member because of "security reasons." He also wouldn't say which gangs were in Maine.
Berry wrote legislative leaders last fall, however, that the FBI had identified nine "recognized street gangs" in Maine, not including outlaw motorcycle gangs and white supremacist groups. The FBI's 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment estimates between 1000 and 4000 gang members in Maine, he said. Berry told the Phoenix that drug traffic is motivating gang activity in the state.
"The number of illegal 'gang members' is a complete surprise, and it doesn't comport with what I have seen over the last 18 years in the criminal defense business," Walter McKee, legislative chairman of the defense lawyers' association, emailed the Phoenix.