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Panel aims to bolster laws on gang violence

The Legislature's Public Safety Committee will call today for a strengthened campaign to combat gang violence, which is blamed in part for last year's dramatic rise in homicides in Boston, and which officials fear will lead to a surge in crime across the state.

The panel says that communities need state help to control gang activity, through such efforts as toughening penalties on trafficking guns and intimidating witnesses; putting more officers on the street by restoring community policing grants; and expanding youth and prevention programs.

''We want to be tough on crime, but we also want to be tough on the causes of crime," said state Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat who will preside at a press conference today unveiling the proposals. ''We've lost our way and lost our focus on preventing youth violence."

The committee's 23-page report -- produced after a year of discussion with law enforcement officials, community leaders, and others -- is expected to set the antigang agenda on Beacon Hill this year.

The report specifically calls for lawmakers to increase community policing grants by at least $4 million a year to put more officers on streets across the state. Last year, the program awarded about $20 million to cities and towns. The report recommends that the additional funds go to places with gang problems that also show they are working effectively with community groups.

It is unclear how cash-strapped state officials will pay for the proposals, but Barrios said that conversations with Ways and Means committee staff and Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey are underway.

''I'm looking to the [Romney] administration, which has said public safety is one of its top priorities, to support a comprehensive strategy for gang violence," Barrios said in an interview.

''That doesn't just mean prosecution, but also community policing and prevention efforts, so we can get back to where we were in the early '90s."

Healey could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Representative Timothy J. Toomey Jr., House chairman of the 17-member Joint Committee on Public Safety, said one way to pay for the proposals is by increasing licensing fees on firearm identification cards and gun purchases.

''The money has to be found," said Toomey, a Cambridge Democrat. ''Some communities are being overwhelmed by gangs . . . It's our duty to step in."

Barrios, the panel's Senate chairman, held a daylong State House hearing in September, after a summer of bloodshed at the hands of gang members.

Boston police blame gang warfare for many of last year's 64 homicides, the most in the city in all but one year since 1996. Police say witness intimidation is one reason they have solved only about a third of the homicides, the lowest clearance rate in at least a decade.

In December, Barrios filed legislation proposing many of the recommendations outlined in today's report. That bill would provide a minimum five-year sentence for illegally carrying a loaded gun; allow judges to order defendants to stay away from witnesses as a condition of bail; and broaden the definition of witness intimidation.

Today's report highlights the roles that guns and witness intimidation play in the gang violence problem, calling for ending the backlog in the state's database that tracks guns used in crimes and for establishing a state witness protection program. A witness protection program has long been sought by district attorneys around the state, the report says, and it would cost less than $300,000 a year.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley praised Barrios for his work on the issue, but said he believes that at least $1 million a year, not the $300,000 suggested in the report, would be needed to start an effective witness protection program.

But Conley is optimistic that after years of foot dragging, the Legislature appears ready to help prosecutors around the state protect increasingly fearful witnesses.

''Witness protection costs money," Conley said in an interview yesterday.

''We have to move people, provide armed police protection, housing. It's not something we can do without the resources."

''Fear has stood in the way of too many of our cases," he added.

In Boston, Conley said, gang members routinely hand out grand jury transcripts to witnesses' neighbors, a tactic that Barrios is hoping to have outlawed. Under current law, defense lawyers can give their clients complete copies of grand jury documents, unless judges agree to prosecutors' requests that names or other portions of the transcript be blacked out because a witness could be in danger.

In New Bedford last week, an unknown gunman fired several shots at a key witness who is to testify in the coming weeks at the murder trial of an alleged gang member. The witness survived the shooting, but officials said the attack underscores the need for reform.

''Many of the shootings that have occurred in the vicinity of New Bedford, if not all, have not been of a random nature," Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. of New Bedford said yesterday. ''Rather, it seems to be targeted by neighborhood, age bracket, and associated gang activity."

Kalisz helped Barrios develop several of the ideas detailed in the report, including increasing the penalty for illegally transferring firearms. Kalisz argues that stiffening the penalty will discourage gang members from sharing illegal guns used in crimes, which has emerged as a major trend in recent months.

''With this legislation, you're now sending a message to a young person who may be attempting to use the streets as a playground that they're giving up 10 years of their life, not a sentence that's bargained down to one," he said.

Suzanne Smalley can be reached at ssmalley@globe.com.

Committee's ideas
Recommendations of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Safety:

 Strengthen victim and witness protection laws, including ones to order defendants to stay away from victims and witnesses, and to punish those who use grand jury transcripts to intimidate witnesses.

 Establish a statewide witness protection program.

 Adopt the federal perjury standard, which allows prosecution of those who make irreconcilable statements under oath. Now, prosecutors must prove a statement is false.

 Restore community policing grants to put more officers back on the streets, increasing the grants by at least $4 million a year.

 Toughen penalties for illegal trafficking of firearms and for illegal possession of loaded guns to stop gangs from passing guns from one member to another.

 Eliminate the backlog in collecting data for the ballistic fingerprinting database, to trace more shell casings to other crimes and suspects.

 Create a statewide grant program for partnerships between local law enforcement and community antiviolence groups.

 Expand out-of-school and summer jobs programs for at-risk youth in cities affected by gangs.

SOURCE: Joint Committee on Public Safety
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