State Rep. Tarah Toohil
Hazleton Standard Speaker
Earlier this week, a group of volunteers and I spent a few hours cleaning up the Arthur Street Elementary School playground in Hazleton. Our focus was the playground equipment that had been marked by graffiti. We painted over it in a show of unity against the graffiti but also against the criminal gang activity that has been taking place in our community.
We were also joined by a number of the school’s students. I talked with them about why gangs are dangerous and what we are doing in Harrisburg to stop their spread in Pennsylvania. Legislation that was signed into law in October addresses the growing number of crimes committed by gang members. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I worked on language in the new law regarding offenses related to the recruitment of children into criminal gangs.
The problem was brought into sharp focus earlier this year when a 15-year-old Hazleton girl was beaten as part of a possible gang initiation. More and more children are being targeted for recruitment by criminal gangs as their influence spreads in our communities. This new law aims to reduce those numbers and I am pleased we were successful in moving it through the General Assembly during the 2011-12 session.
Act 200 of 2012 adds an offense to the books relating to the recruitment of criminal gang members. It directs the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to establish penalties for the crimes of soliciting, threatening or injuring a person to join or remain in a criminal gang. The grading of such offenses now ranges from a second-degree misdemeanor to third-degree felony with maximum penalties of two to seven years in prison. The offense is graded one degree higher and carries an increased penalty when the crime is committed against someone under the age of 16.
More than two dozen states now have similar anti-gang recruitments laws in place including the neighboring states of Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey.
Act 200 also directs the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to enhance the penalties for offenses committed in association with a criminal gang. The offenses in question are drug trafficking and crimes of violence, including murder, rape and robbery that are committed to benefit, promote or further the interests of a criminal gang.
The National Gang Intelligence Center recently reported that criminal gangs are on the rise nationwide. The 40 percent increase in gang membership was attributed to more aggressive recruitment efforts; the formation of new gangs, including collaboration with rival gangs; and new opportunities for dealing drugs.
The reasons for enacting Act 200 are clear. The new law gives prosecutors and judges another weapon to combat this growing threat to our communities and our children.
I want to thank Hazleton POWER!, the Hazleton Area School District, the Hazleton City Police Department, and Senator John Yudichak’s office for attending and participating in our recent paint out event. A special thanks also goes out to Sherwin-Williams for donating all of the paint.
I frequently use this weekly column to answer your questions about any matter relating to state government. If you have a question, please contact me at [email protected]. I look forward to hearing from you.