According to the state's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division, 30 percent of the state's robberies and 14 percent of its aggravated assaults during those years involved firearms, many of which are used or purchased by street gangs.
Assemblyman Louis M. Manzo (D-31st Dist.), who represents Bayonne and part of Jersey City, said he began working on a package of bills after reading recent headlines of violence.
"We've seen a recent spurt of violence in Jersey City and around our state," he said. "Camden, Irvington, Trenton, Jersey City and other urban areas have seen a spike in gang-related crime. Every day I read about someone getting shot, so I started doing some research to see what laws we had and what we need. This package is the result."
In addition, Manzo contacted Gov. Jon Corzine's office to ask that Jersey City be included in the state's Operation: Cease Fire Program. This is a program aimed at juvenile and gang firearm violence and is based on the concept of showing street gangs that each crime will result in "swift, sure, and severe consequences for violence."
This includes increasing the level of punishment and the intensity of investigation for each gang-related crime.
But this program also has an educational and counseling element, using faith-based organizations to help kids get out or avoid becoming a member of a street gang.
"Operation: Cease Fire has proven successful in other urban areas of the state because it has made police treat incidents of violence with vigilance," Manzo said. "It also has given police the authority to pursue weapons that would be used in future crimes. When acts of violence are treated with the same seriousness as murders, we get results that allow police to put gang members under intense scrutiny."
Anti-gang task force
One of the bills in his package of anti-gang laws would establish an anti-gang task force that will co-join the Attorney General's Office, the State Police, the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office, and the Jersey City Police Department.
Manzo is hoping to create a cooperative network of law enforcement modeled after Camden's program - which includes crime gun tracing, investigation based on database information and local incident reports, and establishing working relationships among local police departments, county prosecutors' offices, probation and parole officers, community leaders, and federal agencies to support vigorous enforcement of the firearms laws.
"I'm recommending that a similar task force be set up in Hudson County, allowing the county sheriff to develop a partnership on crime, sharing information with other communities that have gang-related problems," Manzo said.
Anti-gang crime bills
The package of bills introduced in the Assembly covers a wide range of areas from purchase of ammunition to the increased penalties for carrying illegal weapons into the state.
According to ATF, those illegally possessing or using firearms are largely males under 30, and the guns are typically trafficked into New Jersey via Route 95 from states with comparatively less strict gun control laws.
One bill would require people purchasing ammunition in New Jersey to show current firearm identification, and would keep a record of who purchased ammunition. Currently the state only keeps records on the purchase of weapons.
Although state prisons prohibit prisoners from using cellular telephones, county prisons do not, and statistics show that gang violence is sometimes orchestrated by those inside jails with members on the outside. One bill would ban such phone use in county jails as well.
Manzo is asking that gang-related crimes be treated as organized crime, allowing local prosecutors to impose harsher penalties under racketeering provisions of the law.
Manzo revamped a bill he tried to get passed last year. Now, instead of requiring the forfeiture of the home of someone connected with a criminal act involving a gun, the bill would allow law enforcement to seize any vehicle in which an illegal gun is found.
One of the areas Manzo is particularly concerned about is the role adult members of the gang play in recruiting kids into gangs. One of his bills would require harsher penalties for these adults.
Another component to Manzo's attack on crime will be to work with the New Jersey Department of Corrections to implement a program that will allow underage offenders to stay out of prison if they plea bargain to enter into a program that is designed to help the offender earn a GED (high school equivalency diploma) and learn a real-life skill within a New Jersey company as an apprenticeship.
A company would be assigned an apprentice if they are Jersey-based and charged with not honoring their good faith employment agreements with municipalities.
Once a job has been provided to a youth offender, a tax credit for that job will be granted to the company by the state.
Drug rehabilitation also will be part of the program.
Manzo will work with the DOC to implement the agency's Project Pride, which brings police officers and former gang members into schools to talk about the ills of gang life.
"This is something like the 'Scared Straight' program that brings in former drug addicts to help prevent kids from doing drugs," Manzo said. "I also want to establish an education program for teachers that would allow them to recognize signs of juvenile gang activity."
Manzo added, "My aim was to put together a comprehensive plan that would not only address getting gang activity out of our neighborhoods, but would also discourage youths from re-entering a violent or gang-related lifestyle after they have been rehabbed by the new measures."