INSIDE WASHINGTON/Taking aim at gangs
Among the subjects discussed at a recent meeting between Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner was how to combat gang violence. Their concerns, as well those expressed at an April U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting on gang violence, demonstrate that local leaders are serious about addressing the crisis.
Because gang activity is on the rise nationally, Congress and the White House also are weighing in on the issue. “Gangs are spreading across our country, increasing in violence and power in every state,” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “The growth and spread of these gangs illustrate that they are no longer a local problem. They are a national problem and require a national solution.”
The Department of Justice estimates 30,000 gangs operate in 2,500 localities and boast a combined total membership of 800,000. Gangs are selling illegal drugs and weapons and running prostitution rings, as well as engaging in other illegal activities. Policing gangs is straining local law enforcement departments already stretched thin because of budget cuts and added responsibilities.
Congress currently is considering at least two bills that would impose harsh penalties on people who participate in gang activity, particularly those who commit violent crimes. First Lady Laura Bush, who is leading a $150 million youth initiative to steer children away from gang life, will host a White House summit on the subject later this year.
But some officials question the effectiveness of the initiative given that the president is proposing draconian cuts to the Community Oriented Policing Services program, Juvenile Accountability Block Grant program and Community Development Block Grants. “Just like earlier White House plans to cut Community Development Block Grant funding, the president’s plan to slash funding for local police efforts will hurt local governments and the people who rely on public safety,” says Williams, the president of the National League of Cities (NLC). “I hope that with the help of other governors and the National League we can convince Congress to reverse these cuts.”
There also is some concern from local officials about Congress’ efforts to address gang-related problems. The House approved a bill in May that funds $388 million over five years to combat gang activity, proposes strict sentencing guidelines and allows underage gang members to be tried as adults. Feinstein has co-authored a separate measure that increases funding to $762 million over five years and is not as strict on sentencing requirements or on the treatment of underage defendants.
Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties (NACo), says his organization has some concerns about provisions in both bills, but noted that action needs to be taken to stem gang activity. “NACo strongly supports a comprehensive and systematic approach to gang violence prevention,” he says. Chris Swecker, a senior FBI official, says law enforcement must get a grasp on gang proliferation, which he says is “more violent, more organized and more widespread than ever before. They pose one of the greatest threats to the safety and security of all Americans.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.