Key Senate Democrats and Republicans are backing a bill to crack down on gang violence, using provisions similar to those used to combat organized crime to criminalize membership and make it easier for authorities to try juveniles as adults.
The Gang Prevention and Effective Deterrence Act, which mirrors legislation passed by the House on May 11, is needed to combat a "national crisis" caused by Mafia-style gangs, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a chief sponsor.
Feinstein estimates there are 840,000 active gang members in the country, operating in every state and in 90 percent of major cities. Youth gangs, she said, are highly organized, hierarchical "corporations" that recruit children as young as 7 and kill seven times as many people as organized crime outfits. Federal prosecutors in Virginia are trying to crack down on a gang known as MS-13, one of the most violent street gangs in Northern Virginia.
"Criminal street gangs have grown over the past two decades from a local problem to a national crisis," Feinstein told the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia last month. "Every day, we read about a new tragedy. . . . They must be stopped."
The bill is being backed by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). The Judiciary Committee postponed action on the bill late last week, but sponsors hope to send it to the full Senate before the August recess.
The proposal is drawing strong opposition from a coalition of more than 100 groups, including several child welfare organizations, that contend a get-tough federal law would be expensive and cause more harm than good.
The groups are urging lawmakers to expand existing programs such as the one modeled after Operation Ceasefire in Boston, which they say has dramatically reduced gang violence and tackles the underlying causes of gang membership.
"What is proposed will not help gang violence, it will only make it worse," Morna Murray of the Children's Defense Fund said.
A new study by the Justice Policy Institute, called "Ganging Up on Communities," challenges the notion of a nationwide gang crisis that requires federal legislation.
It highlights figures from the National Crime Victimization Survey showing that from 1994 to 2003 violence by criminals who were perceived to be gang members declined from 5.2 per 1,000 to 1.4 per 1,000 -- a reduction of 73 percent.
The report, released last week, found that violent crimes in which victims identified the offender as a gang member peaked in 1996 at 10 percent, decreased until 1998 to about 6 percent, and have not significantly changed since. The study was based on federal Bureau of Justice Statistics figures.
"Currently, public opinion is swayed by sensationalized stories from media and lawmakers who say that gang-related crime is a 'national crisis,' " says the report, prepared by Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. "The reach of the gang crisis is portrayed as broad and omnipresent, said to connect everything from drug trafficking, to immigration, to terrorism."
The Senate plan is partially based on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which has been used to dismantle traditional Mafia families. It would make it a federal offense to belong to a criminal street gang -- defined as a group with three or more individuals who commit gang crimes. It would also make it a felony to recruit a minor into a gang, and allows federal prosecutions of 16- and 17-year-old gang members, subject to the agreement of a judge.
Besides expanding the powers of law enforcement agencies, the bill would provide an additional $350 million over the next five years for intervention and prevention programs to help at-risk youth.
The House version of the bill would further expand the penalties for gang-related crime. It introduces mandatory minimum sentences, such as life or capital punishment if a gang crime results in a death. There is also a minimum term of 30 years for gang-related kidnappings or aggravated sexual abuse. There are no provisions for extra funding for prevention programs.