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Anti-gang bill passes major hurdle

Anti-gang bill passes major hurdle
BY LISA FRIEDMAN, Washington Bureau
LA Daily News
Article Last Updated:06/14/2007 11:20:35 PM PDT

WASHINGTON – Sweeping anti-gang legislation sailed through a key Senate committee Thursday, giving the proposed expansion of federal authority to combat gang violence its best chance in a decade of becoming law.

The measure would be a boon to Los Angeles and cities across the country grappling with surging crime rates, pouring $1 billion into gang suppression and prevention programs over five years.

Los Angeles and Southland leaders had heavily lobbied congressional leaders to support the measure and hailed the 17-0 vote by the Judiciary Committee as a major victory.

“It’s going to mean a federal helping hand,” said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, who co-wrote the measure with Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.

“Unfortunately, California has been a source … for gangs, and as the years go on they become more vicious.”

The move comes amid months of city efforts to quell gang violence. In Los Angeles, gang-related crimes rose 14 percent, while the San Fernando Valley saw a 44 percent jump.

The bill, endorsed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton, would make it a federal crime to recruit minors into a gang or to be a member of a street gang.

Further, it would create a new list of crimes to make it easier to prosecute the country’s estimated 30,000 gangs. And it would dole out millions of dollars to hire more state and local prosecutors to pursue cases against gang members.

With the November 2005 killing of 11-year-old Mynisha Crenshaw still fresh in the minds of many San Bernardino residents, the bill also incorporates an element designed by Sen. Barbara Boxer to honor the girl’s memory.

That provision calls for a local and federal task force to identify successful prevention efforts. The bill now goes to the full Senate.

Feinstein – who with Hatch has spent the past decade pressing for the measure known as the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act – said she believes it has a significant chance of passage.

That’s largely because over the past several years Feinstein – a former mayor of San Francisco known for backing tough law-and-order measures – agreed to drop a number of provisions that upset liberal and social-justice groups.

A call for a mandatory minimum sentence was scrapped, as was an increase in death penalty crimes and a provision that would have made it easier to prosecute juveniles.

In just the past week, Feinstein also narrowed her definition of what constitutes a gang to an association of five or more people, each of whom has committed at least one gang crime.

She also incorporated a mentoring program and raised the threshold of what could be considered a gang crime – eliminating what she called “lower level” state crimes like simple assault.

At the same time, she added $160 million for prevention and intervention programs after juvenile justice groups complained that she was shortchanging those organizations.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., called the newest version “enormously strengthened” as he and others praised Feinstein for working with Republicans and Democrats on the changes.

“This might not have the answer and be the silver bullet, but I think it’s going to make a difference,” he said.

Many who work with teens, however, say they remain opposed to Feinstein’s bill.

“It emulates a failed approach – more cops, more investigations, and more ways to categorize behavior,” said Jason Ziedenberg, co-founder of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

He also criticized the grant funding for prevention in Feinstein’s bill – about $411.5 million – saying lawmakers need to target programs that are proven to work.

“This is the wrong way to address the serious youth violence problem in Los Angeles,” Ziedenberg said.

“California’s got enough ways to lock up gang members. … If we agree that there’s no way to arrest our way out of this problem, why are we doing that?”

In the meantime, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, is carrying a bill similar to Feinstein’s in the House.

While no vote has yet been scheduled, Schiff said he will be part of a major strategy session next week on fighting gangs.

He predicted the House bill, much like Feinstein’s, will be modified to incorporate more prevention options.

“Things look very positive,” he said.

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