Anti-Gang Law Is Underused, Chief Says
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the city's anti-gang law is rarely used to its full extent by prosecutors and has had "little impact" on preventing gang crime.
The law, enacted in 2006 by the D.C. Council, was supposed to generate tougher penalties in cases involving gang activity. Defendants can face up to five more years in prison if their crimes are found to be gang-related.
The U.S. attorney's office, which prosecutes adult defendants, has used the law twice. The D.C. attorney general's office, which handles cases involving juveniles, has brought charges under the law 12 times but has not fully enforced it, Lanier said.
"These charges were later dropped through plea agreements or because prosecuting attorneys were satisfied with other felony or violent misdemeanor convictions," Lanier wrote of the juvenile cases. Her assessment came in a statement to the D.C. Council and was first reported by the Washington Examiner.
Regardless, Lanier said, the five-year penalty holds little sway for juveniles because, no matter their sentence, they cannot be held beyond their 21st birthdays.
Gangs and crews have been a persistent problem in the District. Officials point to fighting among neighborhood groups as one of the reasons that homicides and other gun violence increased last year. In recent months, police have dealt with a rise in violence among gang and crew members in Shaw, Columbia Heights and other parts of Northwest Washington.
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), head of the council's public safety and judiciary committee, said authorities must get ahead of gang activity.
"If it gains too much of a foothold, it can be very hard to combat it," Mendelson said. "That was one of the reasons to write the law, to give law enforcement the tool."
The D.C. office of the attorney general did not respond to inquiries about the law yesterday.
Monty Wilkinson, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said prosecutors prefer to use tougher, more established laws in gang prosecutions, building more sweeping cases on conspiracy and racketeering charges. Those can carry life prison sentences.
"These are long-term investigations," Wilkinson said. "It's an efficient way to prosecute that type of conduct."
Wilkinson said his office has not ruled out using the D.C. law.
"That's not to suggest that in certain instances we would not use the local provision," Wilkinson said. "It's relatively new."
Lanier and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) announced plans late last year to target crews and set aside nearly $3 million for a gang initiative: $1 million for community partnerships for gang intervention and $1.8 million to expand the ShotSpotter gunshot recognition system.
Lanier also consolidated the department's gang intelligence unit, saying at the time that "crews are a very, very strong driving force behind the crime."