NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Legislation aimed at curbing what some lawmakers and law enforcement officials have labeled a growing gang problem has cleared a Senate panel and will be considered next week by the full chamber.
New task force
The bill will beef up the state’s conspiracy laws and create a new gang task force, including $150,000 in new money from the general fund to help it operate, according to Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It also creates a mobile enforcement team within an existing drug task force.
"I think we got everything in that we needed to do, to try to bring Vermont up to date in specific areas, like Bennington and Rutland, where the problems are most acute," Sears said.
Sears’ committee voted unanimously last week to advance the bill on to the full Senate. That action followed testimony from the head of the Vermont State Police and the Department of Corrections about the growing gang influence in Vermont. They testified that an increasing appetite in the state for street and prescription drugs is driving an illicit drug trade that gangs are looking to cash in on.
"It’s been going on for years. We know we’ve had some gang issues from out-of-state, but it’s becoming more prevalent in-state," Sears said.
Officials are working to understand the gang influence in the Vermont prison system. They know that members of at least six sects within the Bloods group have been imprisoned in Vermont. Members of "outlaw motorcycle clubs," like the Hells Angels, Nomads and Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club, have been identified. And members of several Latino and Hispanic gangs, like the Latin Kings, Los Solidos and MS-13, have turned up.
The legislation also instructs the Vermont Attorney General to examine whether Vermont would benefit from a state version of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The federal law allows prosecutors to seek charges against leaders who order others to commit crimes.
Sears said the legislation directs the attorney general to consult with the new gang task force and the defender general before completing a report that is due no later than Jan. 15.
The legislation is expected to have broad-based support in the Senate, according to Sears. It may need to pick up more support in the House, though, he said.
"I’m going to need help from the Bennington County and Rutland County and Chittenden County delegations. People have been in denial about the extent of the problem," he said.
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