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MS-13 gang legislation is a bandwagon fix

Suffolk County police at the Pilgrim Phychiatric Center

Suffolk County police at the Pilgrim Phychiatric Center in Brentwood on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, where they searched for more remains in a wooded area which police believe are gang related homicides. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Gang violence, especially recent killings associated with MS-13, is a serious, complex problem. It needs immediate attention, and a nationwide sweep over the past six weeks that included almost 1,400 arrests, 30 of them on Long Island, is an important part of what must be a relentless effort.

New laws could help, but crafting and passing them requires holding hearings, consulting with law enforcement experts and coming up with measures both the State Senate and Assembly can support.

The State Senate passed a bill Monday, the same one it passed in 2013, to crack down on street gangs by increasing penalties for a long list of crimes committed as part of gang activity. It would define new crimes, including soliciting recruits to gangs and accepting the proceeds of gang activity. It would create a gang prevention curriculum for schools and provide forfeiture money to fund nonprofit organizations working to stop street gangs.

The Senate was spurred on by killings in Suffolk County that police say were committed by members of MS-13, a street gang with its roots in El Salvador and its hooks in some Long Island communities. The Suffolk police department believes MS-13 is responsible for at least 11 recent deaths in the area, including four young men killed in Central Islip last month, and two high school girls killed in September in Brentwood.

The killings spurred a huge law enforcement operation targeting MS-13 with local, state and federal resources. Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Central Islip and promised to “demolish” the gang, but he must provide the tools.

Additional law enforcement resources are needed now. To stop the growth of MS-13, we need more federal prosecutors, a larger federal gangs task force, better border control and tracking of those who come here.

More laws are likely needed, too, but not poorly considered legislation whose definition of street gang members is “any formal or informal association in fact of two or more individuals identified by a common name, sign, dress, symbols, tattoos or other marks or markings.” The definition is so broad as to be both useless in defining street gangs and dangerous in the threat it poses to the right of free association.

The reaction of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to the legislation was as disappointing as the legislation itself. Heastie said he doesn’t think increased penalties will deter gang crimes, and he argued that we need to repair the fabric of society so people don’t want to commit crimes or join gangs. That type of response to violence, while it’s not without merit, would seemingly require a generation to take effect.

Let’s make sure that law enforcement floods the zone in these communities, decimating MS-13 by jailing members every time they commit a crime and deterring crimes with a visible police presence even after this momentary spotlight fades. Meanwhile, a thoughtful look at creating better laws to deter, control and punish street gangs that leaders from both parties, in both chambers, can agree on, makes sense. As does educating middle-schoolers about the dangers of gangs.

But Monday’s legislation doesn’t seem to be that, so much as it feels like a bandwagon attempt to be seen doing something, no matter what. — The editorial board