After a January 27 public hearing featuring a rare insinuation by one legislator that a fellow lawmaker lied, Criminal Justice Committee members were ready to throw out LD 1707, a bill that piles heavy sentences onto people convicted of involvement with criminal street gangs.
At the hearing, the bill faced broad opposition. LD 1707 would allow people to be convicted of belonging to a gang by such things as their clothing, tattoos, where they live, and the testimony of a "reliable informant."
The committee won't dispose of the bill until its February 9 work session, but even the sponsor, Republican Representative Amy Volk, of Scarborough, abandoned it.
Volk proposed instead an amendment asking the state's Criminal Justice Academy, a law-enforcement coordinating body, to study how to define a gang member and how information on gangs could be better shared among police. The amendment is so different from the original bill that the committee discussed if it should even be considered. That question also will be taken up on February 9.
Several committee members appeared unhappy with Volk, especially after she implied that Senate assistant Democratic leader Justin Alfond, of Portland, had not told the truth.
Alfond, a cosponsor, had written the committee that the bill had been misrepresented to him and that he now opposed it: "I fear that all that this bill will do is increase the population of our already crowded prisons."
The bill includes a provision under which someone could be sent to prison for 40 years for soliciting another person to join a gang, which could have only three members.
Volk told the committee, "Anyone who claims that they were misled about this bill, it's my word against theirs."
Representative Anne Haskell, a Portland Democrat, bristled at Volk's casting "personal aspersions" on another legislator, which she found "distressing."
Another committee member, Senator Stan Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat and a cosponsor, echoed Alfond in saying he, too, had agreed to a bill that was unlike what LD 1707 became.
The measure originated with the Maine Gang Task Force, a police group that won't reveal its membership. (See "Gang-buster Bill Gets Dissed," by Lance Tapley, January 27.)
The task force's president, Eric Berry, spoke lengthily about the need for anti-gang legislation — he said he now supported the amendment — but left some committee members with puzzled looks when he claimed gang members are responsible for "over 30 percent of crime in the state."
Berry later told the Phoenix he meant to say, instead, that more than 40 percent of "violent criminal charges" in Portland and the Lewiston-Auburn area related to gangs. Portland police, however, were unable to provide information confirming or denying this.
The bill's most influential opponent was John Pelletier, chairman of the Criminal Law Advisory Commission (CLAC), which advises the Legislature. Pelletier noted that solicitation of a crime is already an offense and that CLAC didn't approve of mandatory minimum sentences. His group wrote the amendment put before the committee.
Sarah Moon, testifying for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, suggested the bill smacked of totalitarianism and racism. Because LD 1707 stigmatized people by group membership, Eric Fuller of the Maine Motorcyclist Political Action Committee said, it was "the scariest bill I've seen in the 25 years I've had walking these halls."