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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Congress' Gang Violence

The House of Representatives is voting this week on a bill that would attach federal penalties to a great deal of gang-related violence.  The bill would also impose new mandatory minimum sentences for gang-related crimes and make it easier to try juvenile gang members as adults.  LawProf Robert Shepherd offered some interesting testimony regarding the bill, particularly about its impact on juvenile offenders.  A copy of his testimony can be found here.

Posted by Jennifer Collins on May 11, 2005 at 01:28 PM in Criminal Law | Permalink

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The U.S. Attorney for Illinois and the President of the National Association of District Attorneys both testified at the same hearing and said that this legislation would be very helpful.

Left with chosing between the opinions of a college professor and the people who actually prosecute the crimes....

Posted by: MJ | May 11, 2005 1:56:55 PM

College Prof.? At least be fair and call him a legal scholar.

Posted by: Joel | May 11, 2005 1:59:39 PM

Geez Joel, I'm really on your bad side today! I'm beginning to think I won't get a Christmas card from you.

College professor isn't (really) a pejorative (depending on the circles you run in). If it is unfair to call Prof. Robert Shepherd a "college professor", how fair is it to only point out one side of the argument before the subcommittee? Doesn't the testimony of the two prosecutors count as "some interesting testimony regarding the bill, particularly about its impact on" the communities infested with gang activity?

I hope both sides of any issue get some equal time here in the blog court of public opinion.

Posted by: MJ | May 11, 2005 2:51:25 PM

Actually MJ, it isn't just you. I've been in a sour mood in general. Mea culpa. I shouldn't be posting when in such moods.

Posted by: Joel | May 11, 2005 3:03:52 PM

Gee, a prosecutor and a prosecutors' special-interest group support further criminalizing conduct. That's unimpeachable, to be sure.

Posted by: Anon | May 11, 2005 5:26:56 PM

I'd be more interested the views of the community leaders from the cities with gang problems this bill claims to target, than the views of federal prosecutors. Federal prosecutors have a vested interest in sending people to federal prison. I seriously doubt, however, that they are in the best position to know how harsh federal sentencing laws impact the communities they are designed to protect (since, my guess is, most US Attorneys don't live in gang-infested neighborhoods. Most of the people I know from law school that went onto become us attorneys had the worst understanding of the realities of city life of all the people in law school.) It's easy for a prosecutor to say "this law will help me put more people in jail," but I think only community members (and maybe sociologists) can say whether putting more people in jail will help or hurt a given community.

I'd also be interested in what states think about this. It seems to me that the problem of gang violence is largely local. In one state, long penalties and a get-tough approach might work best. In another, maybe counseling is the best way to go. Why should the federal government dictate a one-size-fits-all approach when states are perfectly capable of passing tough laws themselves if they think its the best approach?

Posted by: 1997 | May 11, 2005 7:20:59 PM

Anon and 1997,

You're probably right. What could federal and state (elected, by the way) prosecutors or our elected representatives possibly know about the best ways to erradicate gang violence that couldn't be vastly improved by a good sociological theory? Clearly we should wait for our university professors exhalt from on high with their real-world expertise and knowledge they gain living on the mean streats of their gang-infested neighborhoods.

As far as local community leaders, if you find one who doesn't want his or her jurisdiction's cut of the $100,000,000 set aside in this bill to aid coordination of federal, state and local officials, I'll set up a webcast of me eating my hat.

Posted by: MJ | May 11, 2005 8:16:22 PM

MJ, you seem to like strawmen but "sociological theory" is almost too much--I don't think anyone is suggesting that a professor go read Weber or Durkheim essays to congressmen. I think it's fair to say, though, that a sociologist could provide some useful statistics about how big a problem gang violence is, whether the new law might decrease or increase gang violence, and whether the new law will help or hurt communities overall. (The law prof. seemed to have some of this information too.)

As for your community leaders comment, I'm quite certain that many community leaders would object to spending millions incarcerating juvenile offenders as adults. You should remember: most big cities aren't run by ultra-conservative mayors. In the city where I grew up, I'd say 90% of the residents would rather have a huge grant to give books to troubled teens than a huge grant to put troubled teens in adult jails to serve adult jail sentences. If you think parents in Detroit or Oakland are walking around saying "if only we could give our young people mandatory minimum sentences, everything would be great!" then you are living in Sean Hannity fantasy land.

Moreover, if longer sentences for sixteen year olds is a top concern of people in a community with gang problems, why shouldn't we let the people in those communities pass their own tough laws? Violent gang crime is a particularly local problem, why should there be a national solution?

Posted by: ADK | May 12, 2005 12:23:32 AM

Actually, I am not sure if I agree that many residents would prefer money be spent elsewhere. At least those in the most effected neighborhoods.

It is a sad truth that most of gang violence affects those who live closest to it. It is said that in these neighborhoods, the kids know to drop and hide behind something when they hear the pop of gunfire. I wouldn't, because I live in a very sheltered middle class environment.

So, in many of these neighborhoods, the complaint is often that of not enough policing and that not enough of the criminals are being taken off the streets.

It is only really in the middle class neighborhoods that the sociological causes of this are debated.

You can add to this that in the mind of many of the Republicans now controlling Congress, it is precisely the sociologists who prattle on about the social causes of this sort of thing who are the problem, and not the solution.

The prosecutors have statistics on their side - the more gang members locked up, the fewer gang related crimes are committed. Our incarceration rates are going up, as our crime rates are going down. Yes, some have posited that this may be due to some other sociological causes. But the most likely answer to this is that these (almost exclusively) guys who were committing these crimes cannot continue doing so while in prison. And hence, decreasing crime rate.

Posted by: Bruce Hayden | May 12, 2005 9:17:51 AM

Putting more police on the streets and increasing mandatory minimums are two very different things. Residents of most high-crime areas, in my experience, do want more police, but they want community policing and they don't want offenders doing 10 years for having a drug habbit or for youthful mistakes. I grew up in a relatively high-crime city and went to a high school where there was the occasional shooting on campus. I am certain that the a substantial majority of people where I grew up do not want increased prison sentences (certainly not above the high mandatory minimum sentences already in place) and do want more funds for education, treatment, and community policing.

But, even if you are right to presume that only the middle class neighborhoods where you've lived debate the sociological questions of incarceration (a somewhat elitist assumption, IMO), why not leave it to cities and states to determine how best to deal with the problems they face? If cities with gang problems think that even longer mandatory minimums are the best approach, I have no doubt that they will elect local DA's who will seek longer penalties and work to pass state laws to increase mandatory minimums. Why should the federal government get involved? Why not leave it to the people who actually live in these cities to decide what works best and what they want? The idea that an ultra-conservative national government in Washington DC, controlled by people who are generally hated in big cities, should dictate how the problem of gangs in cities should be handled doesn't make much sense to me. Do you think Bill Frist, Tom Delay, and George Bush really know more about what high-crime neighborhoods need than the residents of those neighborhoods?

Posted by: ADK | May 12, 2005 10:23:50 AM

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