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In Support of a Federal Anti-Gang Law

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“A functioning federal gang prosecution law patterned after Georgia Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act would provide a direct legal outlet for FBI’s ‘increased focus’ on gangs.”

As president of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association, I have the privilege of working with local, state, and federal prosecutors who dedicate countless hours to stopping this country’s greatest public safety threat: criminal street gangs. To verify this, one needs to look no further than the federal statistics showing that there are well-over 1,000,000 gang members from approximately 33,000 separate gangs that commit the majority of violent crime, narcotics distribution, and human trafficking.

But, systemic failings when it comes to adhering to best anti-gang practices are often unnoticed, even when the statistics are widely available. A high-profile federal program supplies a “teachable moment.”

Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative: FBI’s “Gang Focus”

The United States Department of Justice’s website tells us that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative (“Safe Streets”) was employed when the FBI “increased its focus on violent gangs.

The FBI, to this effect, explains that, “For the 68 Safe Streets Task Forces (SSTFs) focused on violent gangs in 55 of our field offices,” there were, “more than 2,000 local, state, and federal investigators representing over 700 law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.”

For those ten years, FBI identifies the following in terms of key measures of anti-gang productivity:

  • Indictments/Informations: 29,273.
  • Arrests: 57,106.
  • Convictions: 23,094.

Was this a significant dent in American gang crime? A closer look is revealing.

Safe Streets Numbers in Context: Rates Compared with Gang Totals

For years, the DOJ and other sources have established that gang membership in the U.S. has surpassed one million. With 1,000,000 gang members as benchmark for FBI’s 2001-2010 Safe Street statistics, key rates are easily calculated.

  • Safe Streets Gang Arrest Rate:
    • 10 Year Total: 5.71%.
    • Average Annual: .57%.
  • Safe Streets Gang Indictment/Information Rate:
    • 10 Year Total: 2.9%.
    • Average Annual: .29%.
  • Safe Streets Gang Convictions Rate:
    • 10 Year Total: 2.3%.
    • Average Annual: .23%.

Safe Streets Numbers in Context: Gang Membership’s Steady Rise

Safe Streets low percentage rates of gang convictions, charges, and arrests are side-by-side with explosive increasers in gang membership. For instance, according to USDOJ studies, from 2009-2011, gang membership continued its rise, actually increasing by 400,000, reaching 1.4 million members from 33,000 gangs, which were responsible for 48-90% of American violent crime.

Safe Streets: No Pressure to Improve

Imagine, for a moment, a local Sheriff of Chief of Police Chief whose task force generated an arrest rate of less than one-percent per year—or if the type of crime a regional task force claimed to be reducing rose at dramatic levels. Even on minor code violations or misdemeanors, political, media, and legislative condemnations would be staggering.

But when it comes to gangs, America’s greatest public safety threat, as so often occurs, Safe Street’s numbers come in without any serious media or political scrutiny at all. Spiking increases of the specific type of crime FBI “focused on” in Safe Streets has seemingly caused no ripple.

Need for a National Gang Prosecution Law

This is in no way meant to shortchange the courageous law enforcement personnel and outstanding prosecutors who have worked Safe Streets cases. Political leadership has deprived them of what is required to defeat America’s Gang Crisis, namely, a federal anti-gang prosecution law.

To this point, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds and Chief Counsel Mike Carlson, have insightfully observed, “Most Americans would be astonished to discover that, despite the devastating size, scope, and magnitude of gang crime, no federal statutory framework specifically designed to prosecute gangs exists.” Acting Cobb County District Attorney John Melvin similarly remarked in a column with Chief Counsel Carlson, “Incredibly, notwithstanding the enduring, ubiquitous, and metastasizing epidemic of gang crime, there remains no set of federal laws specifically designed to prosecute gangs or gang members for their gang-motivated crimes.”

Currently, federal law only houses a weak and basically unused “sentence enhancer.” U.S. Congress passing an anti-gang prosecution law is needed.

Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act would provide a tremendous model. As Fuller E. Callaway Chair of Law Emeritus Ronald L. Carlson  of the University of the Georgia School of Law has correctly imparted, “The federal [gang sentence enhancement] statute was described by one federal prosecutor as ‘unworkable.’ Perhaps this explains the hesitant application of its provisions. Comprehensive anti-gang frameworks, like Georgia’s model, are far more impactful against the gang epidemic.”

Conclusion: Improve Safe Streets with a Federal Gang Prosecution Act

Southern District of Georgia United States Attorney Bobby Christine has stated that a “persistent, steadily increasing, relentless surge of prosecution” is required to overcome our gang crime crisis—what some have correctly referred to as an “occupation.”  Without a specifically tailored law to prosecute gangs at the federal level, national efforts to combat gangs will continue to be hamstrung. The low numbers associated with Safe Streets are a reflection of this legal failure, not that of Safe Streets agents or prosecutors.

A functioning federal gang prosecution law patterned after Georgia Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act would provide a direct legal outlet for FBI’s “increased focus” on gangs. Passage of a national anti-gang act would also foster the goals of Safe Streets, improve national public safety, and better serve the public to which they are sworn to protect.

In this upcoming political season, we will see who rises to this occasion. Regardless, GGIA and organizations like it will remain devoted to raising best practices, standards, and awareness when it comes to the threat of gangs.

James “Jimmy” Callaway serves as the President of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association and is the Chief of Police for the City of Morrow, Police Department in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Callaway has authored this column in his personal capacity. The views expressed above are the Author’s own and do express those of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association or the City of Morrow.

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