WASHINGTON – The recent federal conviction of two Virginia gang members in the murder of a four-months-pregnant teenager could result in the death penalty (search) if prosecutors have their way. And if some members of Congress have their way, more such punishments will follow, and gang members could be headed to prison for longer sentences.
"We can assure you one thing: They won’t be committing more crimes because they will be off the street," Rep. Randy Forbes (search), R-Va., said.
Forbes is the author of new legislation that would set forth federal mandatory minimum sentences for criminal gang activity, enabling the federal courts to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, add time to convictions of illegal immigrants (search) in gangs and make it easier for prosecutors to seek the death penalty for convicted gang members.
Forbes worked with other Virginia Republicans to get the bill passed through the House of Representatives last month on a 279-144 vote.
But not everyone believes giving federal authorities more jurisdiction in gang crimes (search) is going to resolve the problem.
"We must give our young people a path to success, not just a path to prison," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who joined mostly Democrats in voting against the bill.
Forbes said stiffer penalties will not only send a message to offenders that prison time is no vacation, but will enable prosecutors to go after entire networks of gangs — much like federal statutes that now help them prosecute organized crime families.
"What we are seeing is the mobility of the gangs the way we have never seen before. This will apply the tools to go after the network in multiple jurisdictions," Forbes, who wrote Virginia’s criminal gang statutes when he served in the state legislature in the 1990s, said.
Forbes and other Virginia lawmakers cited the rise of Mara Salvatrucha (search), or MS-13, a nationwide gang with roots in El Salvador, to push the legislation. Members of MS-13 have been accused of attacking victims with machetes. They have infiltrated small towns and schools.
A federal jury on May 17 found two MS-13 members, Ismael Cisneros, 26, and Oscar Grande, 25, guilty of the 2003 slaying of Brenda Paz, 17, who had been helping federal prosecutors investigate members of the gang. Paz was 16-weeks pregnant when she was stabbed to death and dumped in the Shenandoah River.
Two other men, Denis Rivera, 21, and Oscar Garcia-Orellana, 32, were acquitted of murder of and conspiracy against a federal witness.
"Compared with other gangs, MS-13 are relatively smaller in numbers, but they are definitely making a name for themselves more than other gangs," Jared Lewis, a former Modesto, Calif., police officer who runs Know Gangs, an organization dedicated to gang research and education for law enforcement, said.
"In El Salvador is where it really grew," Lewis said. "The original members received guerrilla warfare training — making booby traps, handling firearms. They have a much more sophisticated level with these things than our kids have.
"That training and mentality has been passed down from generation to generation," Lewis added.
The federal government already considers the gang problem so critical that it has created a division within the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, inside the Department of Homeland Security, to address it.
Operation Community Shield began in January as a way to combat the growing influence of MS-13 and will eventually expand to address other street gangs, said ICE spokesman Michael Keegan.
Keegan said ICE can help put a dent in the problem on both the immigration end as well as the international smuggling aspect. He said the operation has netted nearly 240 MS-13 members since February. Previous to that, ICE had been assisting local enforcement with their gang problems, but now they are taking on a more formal and integrated role, he said.
“Once we saw the need out in the country for our expertise, we decided to form an organization,” Keegan said. “Certainly [gangs] affect many communities — Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota — places you would never think.”
Hoping to add to the federal arsenal of law enforcement tools, Forbes' bill has been endorsed by the White House as well as the Fraternal Order of Police.
"With the increased mobility of our population and the population of Latin America, the ability to move with impunity over the borders, [Latin gangs] have become entrenched, bigger and unfortunately more violent," Jim Pasco, executive director of FOP, said.
But Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, which opposes the legislation, said prosecutors already have a wide range of state and federal laws to crack down on gang activity.
"Unfortunately, [the bill] is another example of trying to fix another problem that doesn’t exist," he said.
Minimum guidelines in the bill would impose the death penalty on any gang crime resulting in death, 30 years for kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse or maiming and at least 20 years for an assault resulting in serious bodily injury.
Mauer and other critics say the bill would subvert a recent U.S Supreme Court ruling that made sentencing guidelines advisory rather than mandatory.
"There is no justification for the minimum sentencing. It just transfers discretion from the judges to the prosecutors and you will have prosecutors deciding cases behind closed doors as opposed to an open court," Mauer added.
"You cannot deny that this is a political response to a problem and the response is really disconnected with what works," said Jesselyn McCurdy, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting to ensure a similar bill isn’t passed in the Senate.
"There is no prevention money in the [House] bill," said McCurdy. "The new funds are for creating task forces, and it doesn’t really do anything to get to the root of the problem of young people joining the gangs."
So far, the only gang legislation circulating in the Senate, co-sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, does not include the mandatory sentencing measures.
But law enforcement officials say any tools they are given to fight this problem give them a boost.
"There can’t be any downsides to it," Randy Crank, president of the Virginia Gang Investigators Association, which represents members of law enforcement across the state, said .
Crank said that besides MS-13, members of the New York/New Jersey branches of the Bloods are also surfacing in Virginia. More familiar gangs like the Latin Kings and Hell’s Angels continue to operate nationwide.
"You’ve got 850,000 gang members out there today. If they were an army they would be the sixth largest army in the world," added Forbes.