Criminal street gangs are responsible for an average of 48 percent of violent crime in most jurisdictions, yet the mainstream media gives almost no attention to the issue.
Even a cursory examination of American gang crime undeniably establishes that our country is in a state of crisis. In 2011, the federal government, in statistics that are widely regarded as “lowballed” and plagued by underreporting, estimated the number of gang members in the nation at 1.4 million. This represented a rise in 400,000 gang members from just two years prior. Sounding even greater alarms, academic studies place youth gang membership at triple the federal calculations.
This monstrous population of gang members is hauntingly matched by gangs dominating the very crimes Americans fear most. Federal reports determine that criminal street gangs are responsible for an average of 48 percent of violent crime in a majority of jurisdictions and up to 90 percent in others. In terms of drugs, United States government assessments conclude that gangs are America’s prevailing street-level distributor of illegal narcotics. Another federally-funded study revealed that an estimated 85 percent of sex trafficking was gang-related.
Can it be any wonder, then, that, in 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimated the number of murders in the United States rose 8.6 percent from 2015, and 16.1 percent from 2012?
Commensurate with the pervasive ascendancy of gang-motivated crime is another sobering reality: the lack of political and media attention that gang criminality receives. Federally, there is no specifically tailored gang prosecution law on the books. Many state attorney generals do not prosecute gangs or gang crime. And of all high-profile congressional hearings political factions demand, no one appears to contemplate an investigation into whose failings are responsible for the explosion of gang membership and skyrocketing levels of gang crime.
Moreover, regardless of any perceived political leanings, refusal to accurately report on gang crime seems to unite media outlets of all stripes. Editorial writers apparently have topics of more concern than precipitously expanding gang membership that already exceeds the population of a number of states. The fact that this progression occurred under the watch of both political parties justifies recriminations against all segments of the Fourth Estate.
The political and media dereliction could be seen as pollyannaish. Others might compare it with Nero and his lyre. Deliberate ignorance, political correctness, intransigence, and downright deceit may all play roles. No matter what the allegory or explanation, however, gangs benefit from the dedicated inattention. Victims increase. Communities suffer. Gangs continue to rampage and recruit.
In the midst of this milieu, however, highly motivated individuals can make positive in-roads. Experience in Georgia proves that certain fundamental components must exist for any jurisdiction to even begin the process of ending gang crime within its borders. Examining some of the key factors is important in enhancing, enabling, and evaluating any community’s efforts:
- Eliminate Ego: All too often, law enforcement and prosecution officials believe that if they “admit” to the presence of gangs in their community, it somehow immediately translates into a failure on their part. The result is that, all too often, those same officials downplay or ignore gang crime in their jurisdictions, diverting resources and attention elsewhere. This only emboldens and encourages gangs at the expense of public safety. Proactive, effective leaders educate their communities on the perils of gangs, and implement impactful strategies to overcome them.
- Never Defend the Indefensible: Communities do not have “gang problems.” America has a gang crisis. Minimizing the severity of this danger will not empower the means or commitment to subdue it. The one million-plus gang members operating in this country do not and will not honor jurisdictional boundaries. They grew in size and criminal intensity precisely because alarms were not sounded. There should be no disjunctions between the language used to describe their threat and the imperatives necessary to protect against it.
- Recognize the Goal: Proper gang investigations and prosecutions must focus on bringing down the organizations themselves. Convicting individual gang members should be seen as a means to an end, not an end in-and-of-itself. In other words, the objective is to slay the Hydra (the mythical serpent which grew back two heads whenever one was cut off), not feed it. This enhanced paradigm often drastically alters the practices and philosophies underlying law enforcement and prosecution programs. Regardless, it is imperative for forward progress. Integrated community-wide initiatives against gangs would also be effective.
- Embrace Methods of Success, Shun Those of Failure: Despite the overwhelming statistics, many in law enforcement and prosecution stubbornly cling to outmoded approaches to combating gangs. On the other hand, established “best practices” do exist. Gang activity charges should always be brought where the evidence supports them. Investigations and charging instruments should prioritize anti-gang offenses. “Comprehensively indicting” gang members to the full extent of the law is key. Anti-gang charges should never be bargained away. Placing the totality of a given gang’s pending criminal acts and members into a single charging instrument—referred to as “omnibus indicting”— is a practice that has generated dramatic achievements.
- Utilize Productive Metrics: These authors have maintained that the three most reliable measures of any jurisdiction’s efforts against criminal street gangs involves a threefold determination of the following numbers: (1) individuals arrested for anti-gang act offenses; (2) individuals charged in anti-gang act indictments; and (3) individuals sentenced for anti-gang act charges. These calculations reveal much about levels of commitment and effectiveness and do so across law enforcement and prosecution boundaries. They create accountability and encourage communication and systemic partnerships, as well as focus toward a common goal.
For jurisdictions that do not have anti-gang prosecution laws, some adjustments could be made. Many have racketeering statutes. Calculating the number of RICO cases involving or naming gangs could serve as a substitute. Where gang enhancement statutes that increase criminal penalties for cases involving gang activity are available, an accounting of how many defendants have been sentenced under such provisions would also be telling.
More importantly, however, employing these three factors has the potential to stimulate positive legislative upgrades that would represent the ultimate “best practice.” For the federal government, this would be the passage of a federal gang prosecution law. At the state level, it could translate into the enactment of similar provisions, where needed, and lead to state attorney generals universally prosecuting gangs across the country.
The stark realities of gang crime and devastating import of gang statistics eviscerate any credibility when it comes to defenders of the status quo. While current racketeering laws and sentence enhancing provisions may lead to intermittent attainments, the unyielding proliferation of gangs demonstrates that a specific set of laws aimed directly at gangs is needed. Immigration statute enforcement will not impact the hundreds of thousands of gang members who are United States citizens. Truncating attention to a single jurisdiction or specific gang will fail to contend with the nationwide menace that the legion of gangs inhabiting our borders comprise.
Georgia is fortunate in that it has the strongest anti-gang laws in the nation. Georgia’s Street Gang Act provides substantive offenses to prosecute those who criminally participate in gangs. It also enhances sentences for gang defendants. Critically, Georgia’s anti-gang laws provide specific conduits for the admission into evidence of any given defendant’s past gang criminality and the totality of the crimes of the gang itself. This allows Georgia juries to receive not only the truth—but the whole truth—about gang members and their gangs.
When Georgia’s anti-gang statutes are utilized, and best practices followed, the results are inspiring. Georgia jurisdictions consistently report that when comprehensive and omnibus indicting plans are implemented, the chilling effect on gang crime is palpable. Regularly, activity from the gang in question tends to cease at the point that the indictment is returned—even prior to the defendants being sentenced. Gang members seek out law enforcement officers and prosecutors, eager to plead guilty and provide information on their gangs. Gang culture is, accordingly, shattered. The consequence here is so palpable, that Georgia gang members have admitted that they avoid entering jurisdictions that engage in these best practices.
Undoubtedly, there is still more work to be done in Georgia, as there is around the country. Adoption of best practices should become widespread and commonplace. Hopefully, Georgia’s successes and forward momentum will infuse support for the federal government and other states to push for policy improvements that will face the existential threat of gangs head on, once and for all.
And defeat them.
Vic Reynolds is the District Attorney for the Cobb Judicial Circuit in Metro-Atlanta, Georgia. Mike Carlson serves as the Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney for District Attorney Reynolds’ Gang Prosecution Unit. Both have been honored by the Georgia Gang Investigators Association for their efforts against criminal street gangs.