The rapid spread of vicious street gangs such as MS-13 is causing alarm in cities and suburbs nationwide, igniting bitter debate about how best to combat the threat and inspiring a comprehensive anti-gang bill in Congress.
The measure is depicted by supporters as the only effective way to counterattack gang violence, and assailed by critics as an overreaction that could clog both federal courts and adult prisons with youthful offenders, most of them minorities.
Sponsored by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., the bill moved swiftly through the House Judiciary Committee last month and is scheduled for a House floor vote Wednesday. It would turn many gang-related violent offenses into federal crimes punishable by mandatory sentences of at least 10 years, expand the range of crimes punishable by death, and enable U.S. prosecutors to try 16- and 17-year-old gang members as adults in federal courts.
"These aren't petty hoodlums," Forbes said. "They're cutting people's heads off, doing countersurveillance on police ... They're trained in a type of violence we've not seen heretofore."
In Virginia recently, gang victims have been hacked by machetes and had fingers cut off. Affiliated gangs in Central America are suspected in several recent beheadings of young women.
The bill's supporters include the National Sheriffs' Association and the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest law enforcement union. If approved, it would move to the Senate where Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have introduced a bill combining tough anti-gang measures with new funding for crime prevention programs.
Opponents include numerous high-powered civil rights groups — the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and others. They cite FBI findings that serious youth crime is declining, say states — not the federal government — can best address the gang problem and worry about long-term consequences for teenage offenders sent to adult prisons.
"We too want to do something about gang violence," said Angela Arboleda of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization. "But punitive measures that lock up youths with adults is not a smart approach."
Arboleda says that Forbes' measure — which the congressman has nicknamed "The Gangbusters Bill" — "is one of the worst bills we've ever seen."
According to Forbes, street gang membership in the United States has grown steadily to more than 750,000, outnumbering police officers. He said a federal approach is needed because gangs like MS-13 — the Central American-influenced Mara Salvatrucha — have spread to many states.
"They're organized; they have a board of directors inside prison and outside prison," Forbes said. "Even while in prison, they recruit — teens, even down to elementary school."
"Because there are alarming stories about gang violence, members of Congress are under pressure from constituents to offer solutions," said Morna Murray of the Children's Defense Fund. "The fear makes it hard to focus on crime prevention. 'Tough on crime' sells, but it doesn't work."
The bill's opponents include some conservatives who question the concept of federalizing law enforcement tasks traditionally handled by states.
"It's better that it stays state law — that's the true conservative position," said Rep. Robert Inglis, R-S.C., the only Republican opposing the bill when the Judiciary Committee approved it on an otherwise party-line vote.
Forbes said of Inglis, "He's a nice guy — but he's dead wrong."
"In the past, these gangs were in just one area — now they have networks across the country," Forbes said. "We want to create enforcement teams that will do six- or seven-month investigations, and then have trials that will bring whole networks down. States can't do that."
Federal statutes already target Mafia-style organizations. Forbes said his bill is needed because some judges and juries balk at applying such anti-racketeering laws to street gangs.
Among those testifying against the bill was Bob Shepherd, a retired law professor and former assistant attorney general in Virginia.
"The amazing thing to a lot of us was how it got on this fast track," Shepherd said. "They're trying to ramrod it through without a lot of deliberation."
He expressed alarm over provisions that would allow federal prosecutors to transfer 16- and 17-year-olds to adult court without judicial review and impose mandatory minimum sentences regardless of circumstances. Critics say the sentencing provisions could require an additional 24,000 prison beds over the next decade.
However, the Fraternal Order of Police said mandatory minimums are appropriate for gang offenders who tend to commit multiple violent acts.
"They're not deterred by the prospect of 90 days on the state farm," union executive director Jim Pasco said.
By David Crary