Persons convicted of gang-related crimes could face longer prison sentences in Pennsylvania through a bill passed in the state Senate on Wednesday.
House Bill 1121 establishes the first state statute defining a criminal gang and makes it a crime for gangs to recruit new members or retaliate against or threaten members who try to leave a gang. The new charges range in severity from a second-degree misdemeanor to a first-degree felony, with charges increasing in severity if the person recruited is less than 16 years old. It passed by a nearly unanimous margin of 45-3.
The bill was co-sponsored in the state House by Reps. Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, and Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township, and supported in the state Senate by Sens. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, and John Blake, D-Archbald.
Boback said the bill will increase penalties for participants in gang crime and provide prosecutors with another tool by making gang recruitment a separate offense, adding the bill garnered the support of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said the bill gives prosecutors a way "to enhance (gang members') punishments and … keep them off the streets longer."
Salavantis said her office has investigated numerous crimes involving gangs and gang influence since she took office in January, and contacted federal and state legislators about addressing the problem.
"Gangs bring violence, bring drugs and different criminal activity, and that's what we want to try to address with those problems within our county," she added.
Toohil said gang violence has become an increasing problem in her district, citing a recent attack on a 13-year-old girl in a Hazleton park.
"Finally, Pennsylvania is a step closer to combating gang violence and preventing gangs from coming here to prey upon our children," Toohil said.
Yudichak said research backs up the observations of Toohil, Salavantis and local law enforcement officials. A 2011 Department of Justice report highlighted an increasing number of organized gangs moving into Northeastern Pennsylvania, trafficking drugs and committing violent crimes, Yudichak said.
"These are for-profit enterprises," Yudichak said. "Whatever their source of profit is, we want to disrupt that. We want to put them in prison for a longer period of time."
Baker said gangs have also infiltrated rural parts of her district.
"We know that it's not just a problem of urban Pennsylvania," Baker said.
Baker said in Pike County, part of her district, local law enforcement has seen an increase in gangs moving into the bedroom communities of the Poconos.
The new laws will take effect 60 days after Gov. Tom Corbett signs the bill.