Gangbusters bill overshoots target

Article Launched: 06/03/2005 01:00:00 AM
Denver Post – editorial

Gangbusters bill overshoots target

Legislation to give the federal government jurisdiction over juvenile gang crimes has merit, but the Senate must improve upon the House version.

The nationwide curse of vicious street gangs has prompted U.S. House passage of the Gangbusters Bill to give federal prosecutors new tools to bring down criminal networks that use juveniles to spread terror and mayhem.

House Resolution 1279 passed 279-144 with bipartisan support, a reflection of increased concern about the estimated 25,000 gangs with 750,000 members nationwide.

The legislation, now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, has mandatory sentences of 10 years to life for gang-related crimes, the federal death penalty for gang murders, and allows 16- and 17-year-old gang members to be tried as adults.

Normally, the feds yield to state jurisdiction over juveniles, but Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., prime sponsor, points to the criminal activities of MS-13, also known as the Mara Salvatrucha, as a reason federal jurisdiction is warranted.

“Gangs in America today have undergone a true metamorphosis,” Forbes said, and are “no longer like ‘West Side Story’ with the Sharks and the Jets.” The new-age gangs travel cross-country to further such criminal enterprise as drug peddling and human trafficking, with thievery, intimidation and murder in their wake.

Once a problem of cities like L.A. and Chicago, at least 55 percent of cities with a population between 50,000 and 100,000 have gang problems, according to Forbes.

“They (MS-13) actually have a board of directors – one inside prison and one outside prison,” said Forbes. “Orders can be given in Los Angeles for criminal acts in Baltimore.” Butchering victims with machetes is a too-common tactic. Intimidating witnesses makes prosecutions difficult.

MS-13 gets its name from mara, Spanish for “army ant” and salvatrucha, a slang term for Salvadorean. With thousands of members in “cliques” in at least 27 states (including Colorado), the gang originated in Los Angeles in the late 1980s.

Young Salvadoreans, already numb from the violence of a bloody civil war, soon figured out that they could use teen assassins. Juveniles often get sentences of only a year or two under state juvenile codes. “They consider it a cost of doing business, a badge of honor,” Forbes said.

Federal jurisdiction has merit, but this legislation has some glaring faults: Prosecutors’ decisions on trying juveniles as adults wouldn’t be subject to review. (In Colorado, state court permission is needed to try juveniles as adults.) Also, the definition of a criminal street gang as a group of three or more individuals who commit two or more gang crimes is so vague that it’s equal parts flexible and scary.

We urge the Senate, where companion legislation has been introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to fine-tune its bill to ensure constitutional protections aren’t thrown aside in the name of expediency.

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