Federal bills target gangs

Many welcome effort, but others criticize harshness

Megan Blaney, Staff Writer
San Bernardino County Sun

Manuel Rivera is a homeowner with a steady job, four children, and a perspective that few in his middle-clblank San Bernardino neighborhood share.

He is a former gang member who served time in the early 1990s for stabbing someone outside a San Bernardino gas station. After he was released, he turned over a new leaf.

But if a proposed law one that imposes a minimum sentence for gang-related crimes had been in effect when he was imprisoned, his transformation would have been impossible, he said. He might even still be behind bars.

“Who knows where I’d be now?” the 30-year-old said. “Lost, hopeless, committing other crimes in prison, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to change my life around.”

But others, especially law-enforcement officials, praise the bill’s strong stance on gang crime.

The federal bill, titled the Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act of 2005, was pblanked by the House of Representatives in May and is expected to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee this year.

Advocates have termed it the “Gangbusters” bill, lauding its tough provisions as the panacea to the region’s gang affliction.

In addition to minimum mandatory sentences starting at 10 years to life for gang-related crimes, and the death penalty for gang murders, the bill allows the attorney general to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults if the alleged crime is a felony.

The bill aims to deter crime by enhancing gang and violent-crime penalties, creating new gang-prosecution offenses and authorizing increased federal spending to coordinate efforts between law-enforcement agencies.

Another bill, sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also aims to combat gang violence throughout the country. It has not yet been voted on in either the House or the Senate, and has been in the Senate Judiciary Committee for months.

The Senate bill called the Gang Prevention and Effective Deterrence Act includes money for fighting gangs but has only one mandatory minimum sentence. It also allows a judge to decide if a juvenile should be tried as an adult. The bill would make it a crime to recruit a juvenile into a gang a provision that is absent in the House bill .

If each bill is approved by both houses, it is possible they could be combined and the differences between them ironed out, said Scott Gerber, spokesman for Feinstein.

Many law-enforcement officials and Southern California governments embrace the anti-gang legislation, citing a need for forceful solutions to increasing gang violence.

Southern California has more than its fair share of gangs. San Bernardino is ranked the 18th most dangerous city in the nation, and Los Angeles is notorious for producing gang members who end up all over the country.

“Gang problems are getting worse all over, not just in San Bernardino,” said Lt. Barbara Ferguson of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff Gary Penrod was not available for comment, but Ferguson said he supported the anti-gang legislation.

“We like the mandatory sentencing provisions,” she said. “Otherwise the judges will sentence inconsistently throughout the country. When you have mandatory sentencing there’s at least a minimum sentence.”

Rep. David Dreier, R-Glendora, voted for the House bill, which pblanked by a vote of 279 to 144. Dreier favors the House bill because of its stronger language.

“We have got to get tough on these criminals and send a clear signal violence will not be tolerated and it will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.

Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto, acknowledged there are valid concerns about the bill but said its strict provisions equip law enforcement with the necessary tools to win the war against gangs.

“We have to crack down even though it may be tough,” he said. “Are we going to allow someone to commit a crime and get away with that?”

Baca bucked the trend of many California Democrats in the House who voted against the bill.

“My decision was not based on party lines. It’s about who can help (San Bernardino) and who’s willing to help the city,” he said.

The bill was sponsored by J. Randy Forbes, R-Va. Reps. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, and Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, whose district includes Victorville and Barstow, also voted in favor of the bill.

Law-enforcement agencies also threw their support behind the increases in anti-gang laws and penalties.

Each bill allocates resources to improve communication among federal, state and local agencies.

The House bill authorizes money for 94 additional federal prosecutors. The increase in federal resources could positively affect Southern California communities, officials say.

“If this pblankes, that’s one more tool for fighting crime,” said Rod Cortez, deputy district attorney in San Bernardino County’s hard-core gang prosecution unit. “It strengthens it so both agencies (the U.S. Attorney General’s and District Attorney’s offices) are able to come down on these gangsters.”

And in Los Angeles, where gang crime accounted for about half of the 487 homicides in 2005, the anti-gang legislation was well-received by the Police Department.

An LAPD spokesman, Lt. Paul Vernon, formerly ran a gang unit. He said any attempts to deter gang crime are welcome.

“Intelligence is so important. We need to know who the players are so when crimes occur you can solve them. Sometimes you can even prevent them by predicting them,” he said.

Vernon said coordination between the agencies is imperative as are programs aimed at preventing kids from joining gangs.

“The unfortunate reality is that L.A. is an exporter of gangs all over the country,” he said. “The big link that’s missing is the nonlaw-enforcement intervention and societal support.”

Ramon Ramos, pastor at Victory Outreach Church in San Bernardino, agreed.

The best way to fight gangs is to keep children from joining them in the first place, he said. He disagrees with the harsher punishments set forth in the House bill.

“Laws like this, it may deter some people, but I don’t think many,” Ramos said. “The real gang members, they don’t care.”

Former gang member Rivera also works with Victory Outreach. He credits the organization and God for helping him turn his life around.

Under the provisions of the House bill, Rivera would probably still be serving a 20-year sentence.

Instead, he visits local youth detention centers and preaches the virtues of the straight life in the hopes of helping kids find “the right road.”

Rivera said the strict sentencing would rule out any incentive for incarcerated juveniles to go straight.

“They definitely have no future if you give them that sort of sentence,” he said. “You’re basically giving them a life sentence.”

H.R. 1279 would:

Allow the U.S. attorney general to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults if the alleged crime is a felony. No judicial review would be required.

Authorize the expenditure over the next five years of $250 million to create gang-enforcement teams consisting of federal, state, and local authorities, $37.5 million for 94 additional federal prosecutors to try cases in high-intensity gang areas, and $100 million in grants.

Create a national gang intelligence center to be administered by the FBI.

Expand the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act the law that calls for strong sanctions against organized crime to prosecute gang crime and interstate murder.

Designate new criminal gang offenses, reforms and enhanced penalties.

Increase the minimum mandatory sentences for illegal immigrants who commit crimes of violence or drug trafficking.

Heighten scrutiny of illegal immigrants and increase the sharing of information between the attorney general, the national crime information center and the secretary of homeland security about illegal immigrants involved in gangs.

Create mandatory minimum sentences for crimes blankociated with gang activity that include:

Life imprisonment or death if a gang crime results in the death of any person.
30 years imprisonment for kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse or maiming.
20 years imprisonment for an blankault that results in serious bodily injury.
10 years imprisonment in any other violent crime.

The Gang Prevention and Effective Deterrence Act

Sponsors: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah

SB 155 would:

Authorize $762.5 million over the next five years to support law-enforcement efforts against violent gangs.

Make it a crime to recruit a child into a gang.

Create one new mandatory minimum sentence for firearms or narcotics-related offenses.

Designate new criminal gang offenses, increase penalties for violent crimes and propose reforms for prosecution of gang members.

Facilitate federal prosecution of 16- and 17-year-old gang members who have committed violent crimes subject to a judicial review.

Authorize the attorney general’s use of grants to fund technology and training for prosecutors and to create and expand witness- and victim-protection programs.

Authorize the attorney general to designate high-intensity interstate gang areas and expand the Project Safe Neighborhoods program.

Source: Library of Congress.

Posted by on Jan 25 2006. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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