Washington’s Mixed Gang Signals


While first lady Laura Bush travels the country to laud programs aimed at preventing youth from joining gangs, President Bush is supporting a get-tough crime bill that flies in the face of the approaches favored by leading youth anti-gang experts.

The Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act (H.R. 1279), passed by the House of Representatives last month, would federalize certain violent gang-related crimes and place stiff mandatory minimum sentences on them. It would also remove judicial discretion in prosecuting 16- and 17-year-old gang members as adults for some crimes.

“It’s a disaster,” says the Rev. Greg Boyle, director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and an advisory board member of the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC), funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. “It is informed by nobody who knows gangs, and it is a measure of the complete cluelessness that we forever throw the same solutions at this problem.”

The bill defines a “gang” as an association of three or more people who commit two or more “gang crimes,” including violence, obstruction of justice, drug dealing, and selling weapons and fraudulent documents.

The sentences of those prosecuted for such federal crimes would follow strict guidelines. For any gang crime of violence resulting in a death, convicts would receive either the death penalty or life in prison. Violence related to kidnapping or sexual assault would carry a 20-year minimum sentence; and violent crimes of lesser gravity would carry no less than 10 years.
The act would also rewrite the criminal code so that the new penalties would apply to all 16- and 17-year-old gang members, without exception. “There would be no redress for kids tried as adults,” says Morna Murray, director of education and youth development for the Children’s Defense Fund. That means there would be no appeal or petition for juveniles seeking to be tried as minors.

The act’s youth clause is intended to make young gang members consider the grave consequences when they contemplate engaging in violent behavior. Many youth gang experts view that as a flawed notion.

“Most of those kids [in gang-heavy areas] won’t even know about the laws,” says University of California-Irvine Professor Ron Huff, another advisory board member for NYGC. “And if they do, that won’t compete with their everyday realities. They don’t expect to go to college, or even live long.”

“These are all ‘think twice’ laws,” says Boyle. He says the strategy of scaring delinquent youth straight is “a proven failure born of bad analysis. It’s just bad thinking, not sophisticated at all.”

The latest figures from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention show that in 2002, there were 21,500 gangs active in the United States, with 731,500 total members. That’s down from 1998 estimates, which put those figures at 24,500 and 770,000, respectively.

Early Intervention

The best way to keep kids out of gangs, Huff says, is to provide alternative paths to kids in gang areas and intervene early with those who commit crimes. His studies of youth gang activity in Florida, Ohio and Denver found that among young gang members, their age at first arrest correlates exactly to the age of gang entry.

“The first offense is almost always just a property crime,” he says. “You can spend resources right then and there, instead of spending enormous amounts incarcerating them later.”

The White House has sent Mrs. Bush on cross-country tour to raise the profile of youth development programs that aim to prevent youth crime. In her travels this year as part of the administration’s Helping America’s Youth Initiative, Mrs. Bush has praised programs that surround kids with caring adults, provide them with healthful activities and teach them life skills. “We need to focus on giving young people, especially young men in our cities, better options than apathy or gangs or jail,” Mrs. Bush said in a speech in February at the Germantown Boys & Girls Club in Philadelphia.

President Bush has proposed cutting $4 billion next year from crime-prevention and youth programs that do many of the things that Mrs. Bush has been highlighting. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, for instance, would lose 19 percent of the $80 million it gets in federal funds.

Supporters of the anti-gang bill say that the prospect of juveniles being tried under the new rules is remote. “The feds don’t really have a procedure for prosecuting juveniles,” says Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association (CGIA) and a 36-year veteran of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. “They’re not going to take busloads of gang members into federal court, even with this bill, and so few juveniles commit federal crimes.”

Murray of CDF views the low prospect for youth prosecution as “one of the weakest arguments you could put forward. It’s immaterial to us whether one or 10,000 kids get prosecuted without the protections that should be afforded them.”

The parent organization for McBride’s California group seems to disagree with the philosophy behind the proposed bill. In its 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations said “incarceration of gang members often does little to disrupt their activities.”

A Senate anti-gang bill (S. 155), offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), lets a judge determine the status of a juvenile offender, and includes money for law enforcement and for prevention and intervention. The bill sits in the Senate Judiciary

Committee, which has been bogged down by the heated partisan debate over the president’s judicial nominees.

McBride says his association supported the House bill under the assumption “that it would go with the bill on the Senate side.”
“We tried to create a careful balance that gives law enforcement some additional tools and provides hundreds of millions for community programs,” says Feinstein spokesman Scott Gerber. “We need to give kids an alternative” to joining gangs.

Even if Feinstein’s measures are incorporated into a compromise package, they will simply make the final product “the least worst possible bill,” Boyle says. “The Senate will add prevention and intervention, and everyone will think that’s enlightened. But it will end up being a small amount, and it will be given to law enforcement” instead of community-based organizations.

The Senate bill also creates a reverse waiver: Once a prosecutor decides to charge a youth as an adult, the defendant could petition to prove that he or she should be treated as a juvenile.

That switches the burden of proof for not trying a teen as an adult from the justice system to the youth, Murray says. “The majority of gang offenders are poor minority kids, and not many poor minority kids have access to really good legal counsel,” he says.

If the Senate bill passes, a House-Senate conference committee will work to rectify the differences and determine which provisions are retained in the final legislation. If it does not pass, the House bill simply dies.

Murray says CDF and other Washington-area advocacy groups, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the National Council of La Raza, plan to lobby against the Senate bill if it heads for a floor vote.