Gangs of Louisville

If Gov. Matt Bevin had been in a college fraternity, he would have been a member of a gang, according to the criteria of House Bill 169, which awaits his signature or veto.

By the letter of the “Gang Violence Prevention Act” many, if not most, college fraternities should be recognized as gangs.

They are an organization with recognized names and symbols. Their members wear common colors, and sometime bear identifying tattoos or brands. Members are initiated annually through organized rituals. They maintain organizational structures, including rosters, bylaws and a governing hierarchy.

And it’s common practice for frats to engage in illegal activities, like “Illegal trafficking in controlled substances … in intoxicating or spirituous liquor … ”

Sound ridiculous?

So is the Gang Violence Prevention Act, because, despite its title, it will not prevent gang violence, and will undoubtedly lead to more young, black and brown lives being ruined. We know this because similar tough-on-crime laws have been the cornerstone of America’s social-injustice policies for decades. And they all have led to more young black men in prison.

HB 169 outlines legal criteria of what comprises a gang in Kentucky. It would make punishments for already-illegal activities more severe for belonging to what lawmakers say is a gang.

In practice, police would have more authority to monitor, track or stop — rather, to profile — kids suspected of being in a gang.

That is all HB 169 will accomplish.

Bevin can still veto the bill. As someone who has taken small steps to improve felony expungements and restoration of voting rights — as well as supported comprehensive criminal justice reform — one would expect Bevin is interested in preventing people from becoming felons in the first place.

But then, Bevin has repeatedly promised major reforms only to succumb to outside political pressures, or been foiled by his inability to lead Republican lawmakers to action.

In 2016, Louisville police explained the city’s “gang issues” to the Metro Council public safety panel. According to Courier Journal, LMPD Chief Steve Conrad “laid root causes at the feet of poverty, drug addiction and easily available firearms but added there’s also been a failure of local institutions that were once counted on to shield young people,” referring to families, schools and churches.

Bevin and Republican lawmakers have a record of doing nothing, if not the opposite, to address the root causes that are driving young men to gangs.

In what way would HB 169 help kids growing up in poverty? Or prevent or treat drug addiction? We know the legislature would never allow anything to curb the prevalence of guns on the streets, so that clearly isn’t this bill.

How does this bill in any way boost any of the institutions Conrad noted?

HB 169 would serve only to rip apart families, as more young men are sent to prison.

Improving public education clearly runs contrary to Bevin’s goal of encouraging private education and charter schools.

Bevin’s prayer corners didn’t ingratiate him with the local religious community. His painted rocks didn’t seem to be the magical cure for the opioid crisis. And Bevin’s work-for-your-Medicaid proposal will prevent more families from getting the care they need… or require that parents spend even more time away from home volunteering to earn enough points for a dental visit.

HB 169 is just the latest hypocritical move from Republican lawmakers who acknowledge the need to solve specific problems, only to draft legislation that doesn’t solve any issue and magnifies other problems.

By not vetoing this bill, Bevin and the GOP will further burden Kentucky’s prison crowding and costs. The Legislative Research Commission estimates that HB 169 would increase state prison costs by nearly $20 million.

If the state legislature, Bevin, Chief Conrad and other elected officials want to fix Louisville’s gang issues, they should spend the $20 million addressing the root causes.

They should pursue criminal justice reform, which will keep drug, nonviolent and lower crimes out of prisons. They should legalize marijuana, and commit tax dollars to mental health, substance-abuse and rehabilitation assistance. They should fund schools, after-school and job-training programs.

They should listen to local officials who say Louisville needs the authority to regulate guns and ammunition within the city.

And they should stop listening to Fox News’ portrayal of American cities. Which, speaking of Fox News, would also be considered a gang under HB 169, thanks to Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.