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Only black people are arrested under Mississippi gang law — but most gang members are white

Crime
Since 2010, only black people have been arrested or prosecuted under Mississippi's gang law, even though more than half of all gang members in the state are reportedly white. (Getty Images)

Only black people have been arrested and prosecuted under Mississippi gang law since 2010, even though more than half of all verified gang members in the state are white, the Jackson Free Press's Donna Ladd reports.

What’s the story?

Mississippi lawmakers have been debating stronger gang laws this year, including one failed bill that would have held other gang members responsible for the crimes of a separate member, essentially making it illegal to even be a member of a gang.

Some of the opposition to that, and other gang-related laws is based on the way those laws are applied across different races.

The Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators determined that 53 percent of verified gang members in the state are white, even though Mississippi’s population has the highest proportion of black people of any state in the country.

However, none of those white gang members have been prosecuted under Mississippi’s existing gang law over the last eight years.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, the state sponsor of the failed bill, insisted racial and political motivations had nothing to do with the proposed legislation.

“It’s not a Republican, Democrat, black or white issue,” Wiggins said.

By the numbers

The Mississippi Streetgang Act was passed in 2001, and meant to target verified members of gangs defined as “three or more persons with an established hierarchy that, through its membership or through the agency of any member, engages in felonious criminal activity.”

According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, 97 people were processed under the law from fiscal years 2010 through 2017, and all of them were black.

Context

This doesn’t mean white gang members aren’t arrested at all. But when they are, they are not being subjected to the more severe punishments that could be tacked on to a criminal for being a gang member.

So when some lawmakers try to enact laws that could allow law enforcement to prosecute people for their associations, even if they haven’t done anything illegal, the racial imbalance of the current law raises concerns for the minority community.

In addition, crime statistics don’t reflect a tie between gang membership and violent crime, said state public defender Andre de Gruy, also a member of the Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force.

“Of gang members and non-gang members, 72 percent have committed a nonviolent crime,” de Gruy said. “Among gang members it was 79 percent, so the tie between gang membership and violent crime isn’t apparent in the limited data we do have.”

De Gruy also said that research in 2014 showed that black people accounted for 80 percent of the incarcerated population serving enhanced sentences.

“So again, historically, enhancements are used disproportionately against African Americans,” De Gruy said.

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