AS HE TRAVELS around the country meeting with prosecutors and police, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has been told repeatedly that street gangs constitute one of the two most vexing challenges facing law enforcement officials; the other is the rising use of the drug methamphetamine. It's good that the menace posed by violent gangs in American cities and suburbs has made an impression on Mr. Gonzales, although he appears utterly perplexed as to the genesis of the problem. Gangs have taken hold "not just in the Hispanic community but also in the African American community," he told a group of Post writers and editors on Monday. "I don't know why that's the case." He promised to think about it and get back to us.
Whatever his puzzlement over the attraction of gangs to some youths, the attorney general's instincts on how to address it seem basically sound -- sounder, perhaps, than those of the administration he serves. While Mr. Gonzales's day job requires him to concentrate on clamping down on gangs through law enforcement, he acknowledges that investigations and prosecutions are only a partial answer. A comprehensive strategy, he believes, must include education, prevention and rehabilitation. "I don't want Hispanic kids to not go to school and not get an education," he said. "Sure, we may be able to prosecute them and put them in jail, but that represents a lost future as employees, as future leaders in our community. We can't afford it."
Nonetheless, a bill backed by the Bush administration and already passed by the House would unwisely federalize many local street crimes, stripping them from state prosecution if they could be tied even tenuously to gang activity. The so-called gangbusters bill would also establish mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, which remove much flexibility from sentencing and make little allowance for the circumstances of individual defendants; similar federal and state schemes have proved unfair and harmful.
Gang violence is a serious threat to the communities where it has taken hold, and in some cases it merits tough treatment by the criminal justice system. But Mr. Gonzales is justified in his apparent unease about locking up gang members and throwing away the keys. President Bush has proposed spending $150 million over three years to prevent gang involvement, with the funds to be dispersed through grants to faith-based and community organizations that attempt to steer at-risk youths away from gangs and into supportive social programs. The House and Senate have each cut that request but appear likely to appropriate some funds. The success of that program, not just draconian sentencing or increased numbers of federal investigations and prosecutions, will be a critical test of whether the administration's commitment to combating gangs is real or just a rhetorical priority.