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House Passes Bill to Make Gang Crimes Federal Offenses

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 12, 2005

Working to circumvent a four-month-old Supreme Court ruling, House Republicans overwhelmingly passed a bill yesterday establishing a host of gang-related crimes as federal offenses and dictating minimum sentences from 10 years to life in prison.

The legislation was introduced by Virginia lawmakers after a Supreme Court ruling in January allowed judges to deviate from the harsh penalties specified in federal sentencing guidelines. The bill, approved 279 to 144, supersedes the guidelines with a schedule of penalties for gang crimes ranging from 10 to 30 years, with a sentence of life in prison or capital punishment for a gang crime that results in a death.

"Mandatory minimums are our only option at this point to allow for the appropriate punishment of these gangs and violent criminals," said Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the GOP's chief deputy whip. "We want to make sure that punishment is swift and sure and commensurate with the offense."

President Bush endorsed the bill shortly before the vote, with a White House statement declaring that increasing the penalties for illegal gang activity will "deter violence and encourage cooperation from gang members." The Senate is considering a gang-crime bill that is less punitive, with major differences in its mandatory minimums and the treatment it prescribes for juveniles.

The House bill would expand the reach of the federal death penalty, increase the likelihood that 16- and 17-year-olds would be tried as adults in federal court and add five years to the sentences of illegal immigrants for violent crimes and drug-trafficking offenses.

Supporters said the "Gangbusters" bill was designed to give prosecutors and law enforcement officials tools for dealing with gangs similar to those that the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act gives them to combat organized crime.

The House bill defines a gang as groups of three or more individuals who commit two or more federal crimes, one of which is violent. It calls for minimum penalties of 30 years for kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse or maiming; 20 years for assaults resulting in serious bodily injury; and 10 years for any other gang crime.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would initially increase the prison population by 100 prisoners a year, then grow to 900 a year by 2010, at a cost of $62 million in the first four years.

Children's and civil rights advocates condemned the lack of discretion the bill gives judges, contending it reflects conservative distrust of the judiciary that became more vocal during the Terri Schiavo case. Opponents assert that the bill essentially allows prosecutors to also determine the sentence according to the charges they lodge.

"This doesn't allow judges to judge," said Mary Price, founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Kyle O'Dowd, legislative director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called the bill the start of a broad plan by the Republican majority to "carve up the U.S. code" and impose minimum sentences piecemeal to evade the Supreme Court decision.

Supporters said that the Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act was inspired in large part by Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a violent street gang of Central American immigrants that is growing fast in the Washington area and is blamed for several Northern Virginia slayings.

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said law enforcement officials report a gang presence in every Fairfax County high school, and said the House bill would put "the full weight of the federal government behind our local anti-gang efforts."

The measure's sponsor, Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), said gangs "have become national and international in scope."

Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) said the bill would allow a capital prosecution "for accidental actions -- it does not require an intent to kill someone."

"If you listen to the debate, you might not think it's illegal to use a machete to chop somebody's hand off," Scott said. "I haven't heard complaints from the local police that they need a new federal law to help deal with those crimes."

Pointing to the bill's lack of funding for deterrence or rehabilitation, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) called it "all punishment and no prevention."

The bill was endorsed by many law enforcement organizations.

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