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Ask the judge: Gangs of Montana

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I was asked about gangs in Montana the other day. How bad is the gang activity, how many gang members are in our state, what are some of the gang names, and what are gangs involved in? Some may be surprised by the answers.

First, there are over a thousand gang members in Montana as you read this. The number depends on how you define a gang member, what time of year it is, and even what is happening in Montana at any one time.

The gangs go by various names, including: Bloods (Piru Bloods, Neighborhood 5 Star Bloods, Rez Bloods), Crips (Mockpaw Crips, 18th St. Crips, 300 Block Crips), Nortenos (North Side Locos, Northern Barrio Locos, Varrio Catorce), Surenoes (Little Valley Locos or LVL, MS-13), Latin Kings, Juggalos, Modern Outlaws, Folk Nation-Gangster Disciples, MT Front Working Class Skins, White Supremists (Peckerwoods, Skinheads) and the Mexican Mafia. 

Some of these “gangs” are hybrids (a cross between gangs and neighborhood cronies), some are junior-high kids claiming colors, some are gang wannabees and some are genuine bad guys looking to make money in a place they see as “open” due to opportunity, lack of police manpower and lack of competition. All are looking for a sense of belonging. Most will end up incarcerated.

Some gangs are into graffiti, some participate in petty crime such as vandalism and theft, and many are looking to make money in the drug trade, particularly meth. Most gangs wear “colors,” often bandannas hanging out of their pockets. Most gangs also have symbols such as a star, crown, numbers, a pitchfork or a pyramid.

We have gang members from other states, often California, who move here or transfer their probation here to “start a business” such as drug trafficking, prostitution or something similar. One in 14 inmates in the Montana prison system has gang ties. The problem is growing, unfortunately.

I recall about two decades ago when gangs such as the Bloods and Crips first came to Billings, law enforcement would arrest them if they jaywalked, littered or had a tail light out. They got the picture that they were not welcome, and many left. Law enforcement is currently having a hard time keeping up due to stretched resources. The jail is well over capacity, so where to put criminals is an issue. This opens up our city to gang exploitation.

Lest I not leave you with all bad news, we do have a Regional Gang Task Force which meets regularly to strategize on how to use the resources available to combat the gang problem. These unsung heroes make a difference. While this picture of gangs in Montana is not a pretty one, and may even come as a shock to some, forewarned is forearmed, and it is better to be aware of what is occurring so we can have a statewide discussion on how to deal with this gang issue we all face, directly or indirectly.

Russell Fagg has been a judge for more than 22 years, and has handled more than 25,000 cases. Fagg is former president of the Montana Judges Association and served two terms in the Montana legislature. 

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