BENNINGTON — State legislators will take a look next week at closing a legal loophole that might be drawing younger gang members to Vermont.
The Banner reported Friday on a recent uptick in violent, drug-related crimes in the area that involve gang-associated individuals coming up from western Massachusetts.
Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage confirmed Friday that her office is participating in the interagency work that’s been happening — “We’ve been very aggressive with the cases that have come into my office,” she said — as well as being active in updating state law that might help the burgeoning problem of gang violence and activity.
In an email to the Banner, Marthage also indicated that the rise in gang activity might be a possible consequence of a Vermont statute that allows those who are 19 or younger to be charged as juveniles; that could be an enticement to draw younger gang members to this region.
“I’m seeing possibly unintended consequences connected to the Raise the Age legislation that has taken effect the last couple of years. A number of the arrests that have been made involve 18- and 19-year-olds. Under the current legislation, my office is required to charge the 18 year olds in Juvenile Court, and next year it will include 19-year-olds,” Marthage said. “There’s no question that the gangs appearing in Bennington are well aware that 18-year-olds are treated as juveniles in Vermont. This creates a whole other package of issues.”
State Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he met earlier this week with the State’s Attorney’s Office and Marthage to talk about the gang situation in Southern Vermont.
He shares Marthage’s concern about the younger ages of the alleged gang members. He said the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing next Friday that will include Marthage to discuss legislation to potentially improve the situation. He said the committee needs to be careful not to punish 95 percent of the young offenders because of the problems created by 5 percent.
“It is scary. ... We’re talking downtown Bennington here,” Sears said of the increase in gang activity in Southern Vermont. “It put us all on notice, and now we have to do our best.”
Sears said lawmakers passed a bill several years ago to create a gang task force, but that was never implemented. He said he hopes that task force is created going forward.
“We need to give law enforcement and the treatment community what it needs to deal with the demand side of this.”
Meanwhile, interagency efforts continue to ramp up, with the Drug Enforcement Administration now assisting local and state departments with gang interdiction and disruption.
Kevin Black, an agent with the DEA assigned to Vermont, confirmed that “the DEA is constantly working to respond to the threat we see across the state. We are especially concerned about the opioid issue that we’ve seen over the last couple of years as opioid deaths increase.”
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette told the Banner earlier this week that police were working with counterparts in Holyoke and Springfield, Mass., and state and federal agencies, including the Department Homeland Security, to rebuff the gang intrusion to the area.
At the same time, Vermont State Police Lt. Shawn Loan, commander of the Vermont Intelligence Center, said his office is on the cusp of liaising with local law enforcement to collect signs and evidence of gang activity — such as alleged gang graffiti or arrest photos — that can then be paired with information on gangs in larger urban areas.
The goal, he said, is to “help prepare law enforcement in communities if there is a rise in gang violence.”
Loan said he hopes to start collecting information shortly after the start of the new year.
Former commissioner of corrections and one-time state police Director James Baker put things in perspective on how important this fight is.
“Once guns get introduced, you’ve got to react to keep people safe,” Baker said. “It’s all about keeping order in the community.”