WASHINGTON – Reacting to spreading street violence, Republicans pushed legislation through the House on Wednesday to make gang attacks federal crimes and put gang members (search) in line for long federal prison sentences or even the death penalty.
A bill approved 279-144 would expand the range of gang crimes punishable by death, establish minimum mandatory sentences, authorize the prosecution of 16- and 17-year-old gang members in federal court as adults, and extend the statute of limitations for all violent crimes from five to 15 years.
The legislation is in reaction to recent high-profile gang crimes, including victims hacked by machetes in Virginia, and to the activities of gangs like MS-13 — the Central American-influenced Mara Salvatrucha (search).
"If you join a violent criminal gang and you commit a gang crime, you'll go to jail for a long time or you'll help us bring down that network," said Rep. Randy Forbes (search), R-Va., the bill's author. "If it fails, we might as well put a sign on billboards that says 'Coming to a neighborhood near you soon,' because that's the growth we're seeing in gangs."
According to Justice Department statistics cited by the bill's supporters, there are 25,000 active gangs in 3,000 jurisdictions across the country, adding up to 750,000 gang members nationwide.
Democrats said the bill puts too much emphasis on punishment and neglects prevention. While the bill authorizes $387.5 million over the next five years to fight street crimes, Democrats said the cost of accommodating new prison inmates alone would exceed $9 billion over the next decade.
"We must give our young people a path to success, not just a path to prison," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas.
Under the bill, federal prosecutors would share about $50 million a year to designate areas of high-intensity interstate gang activity and create law enforcement teams to go after gangs.
Forbes aides said the intent is to produce an estimated 200 new federal anti-gang prosecutions a year that would strike at gang networks much like the federal government has pursued organized crime syndicates.
The bill defines criminal street gangs as groups of three or more people who commit two or more gang crimes, one of them violent.
Minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines would impose death or life imprisonment for any crime resulting in death; at least 30 years in prison for kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse or maiming; and at least 20 years for an assault resulting in serious bodily injury.
Convictions for other gang crime — defined as violent crimes and other felonies committed to further the activities of a street gang — would result in a minimum prison term of at least 10 years. Gang members would be able to avoid the toughest sentences if they cooperate fully with prosecutors.
Supporters looked at the mandatory minimum sentences as the first remedy to a recent Supreme Court ruling that made sentencing guidelines advisory instead of mandatory — a decision that disturbed many Republicans. Backers also said they were the best way to force low-level gang members to cooperate with prosecutors and turn in gang leaders.
But Democrats said such sentencing requirements would disproportionately affect minorities, remove the discretion of judges and swell prison populations without stopping crime. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., introduced an amendment that would have struck the mandatory sentencing provisions from the bill, but withdrew it in face of GOP opposition, saying she didn't want it to become a political issue.
"I know there are people who are just salivating for this amendment to remain on the floor so they can catch Democrats voting for something they will use in their campaigns," Waters said.
The House approved an amendment by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that would stiffen penalties for illegal immigrants, who law enforcement officials say make up a large proportion of some gangs. The provision, approved 266-159, would add five years to violent crime and drug trafficking sentences when the violator is an illegal immigrant, and 15 years if the violator has previously been deported for a criminal offense.
The bill's supporters include the National Sheriffs' Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. Opponents include civil rights groups like the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (search) and Human Rights Watch.
The bill's prospects in the Senate are uncertain. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have introduced an anti-gang bill that, unlike Forbes' bill, contains funding for crime prevention programs and does not include mandatory minimum sentence provisions.