Once Gov. Bill Haslam signs an anti-gang bill just passed by the Legislature, Chattanooga investigators and prosecutors will be able to start building cases to send away some of the most violent gang members, officials say.
At a news conference this morning, local officials said they're hopeful gang violence will decline.
"It's kind of like going from a screwdriver to an electric drill," said Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, who sponsored the bill in the House.
Mayor Ron Littlefield said that, while the law would not be an "instant cure," it would be part of the solution in dealing with a "systemic problem."
The city lobbied local legislators to introduce the bill, which alters existing laws to incorporate criminal street gangs into the state's racketeering law. Currently, the law only includes child pornography and drug trafficking but once Haslam signs the recent bill, it will be expanded to include the prosecution of criminal street gangs.
Gang members would be tried under the law, making it possible to give them longer sentences and higher fines.
The law requires prosecutors to prove people in gangs are committing crimes in interest of the gang, said Boyd Patterson, who is one of the city's project coordinators in charge of implementing a federal anti-gang plan. Just membership in a criminal street gang is not enough to prosecute someone, he said.
Hamilton County is expected to allocate funds to create a full-time gang prosecutor position.
Last year, more than half of the city's 25 homicides were gang related. The city has documented an estimated 1,100 gang members in Chattanooga.
For complete details, see tomorrow's Times Free Press.