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Senate OKs anti-gang bill; odds of passage are longer in Assembly

Exterior view of the New York state Capitol

Exterior view of the New York state Capitol as legislative leaders work on the state budget in Albany on Sunday, April 2, 2017. Credit: AP

ALBANY — The state Senate passed a bill Monday intended to crack down on street gangs, but the measure will face long odds in the Assembly, where the top Democrat said the focus should be on beefing up education and prevention services, not prison sentences.

“I still believe most people have no idea of penalties when they commit a crime,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) told Newsday. “I don’t think penalties are a deterrent. . . . Usually people who go into gangs, it’s be there’s some other things they are missing in the social fabric of their network. And I think that so many times we just want to look at what to do when people commit a crime instead of coming up with ways to stop people from committing crimes — and that’s where I think we’re differing from the Senate.”

Other critics said the bill defines gangs too broadly and doesn’t do anything to specifically target MS-13 — a gang police say is responsible for four murders in Central Islip last month that triggered a visit from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

At issue is a bill that would mandate “enhanced” sentences — that is, tougher and potentially longer prison terms — for felonies committed during gang activity, and load up an array of new felonies. It would make recruiting a minor to join a gang a felony. It would create a “gang prevention” curriculum to be available for schools and a “Criminal Street Gang Prevention Fund” to help subsidize nonprofit organizations working on gang deterrence.

The Republican-led Senate approved the bill, 48-13, on Monday, saying the measures were necessary to take on an increase in gang violence. Newsday previously reported that experts say the recent eruption of violence on Long Island represents a new and more deadly profile of MS-13 — a violent gang that originated in California and continued to grow out of El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s.

“Neighborhoods that have been particularly hard hit by gang violence on Long Island and in communities across the state need better resources to help eliminate gangs and the victimization of those in their wake,” Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said after the vote.

Critics said the focus shouldn’t be on increasing penalties.

“We can’t legislate our way out of gangs,” said Sen. Jesse Hamilton (D-Brooklyn), although he voted in favor of the bill. He said susceptible youths need “vocational training, educational opportunities and gainful employment” to steer clear of gangs.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will review the bill, an aide said.

“The governor takes the scourge of gang violence very seriously and has deployed additional state troopers and resources across the state to combat it head on,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi. “We will certainly review any measure that bolsters these efforts.”

Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, acknowledged some of his colleagues will oppose an increase in penalties and added that some see the legislation as written too broadly.

“They think it might just not apply to gangs, but kids congregating,” Lentol said, adding that he is aiming for a proposal “that is workable” for the Assembly.

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