LOS ANGELES (FinalCall.com) – Black and Latino lawmakers should be wary of two pieces of legislation working their way through Congress that could mean more targeting of youth, instead of curbing crime, warn civil liberties advocates.
“I’d be very suspicious of any bill that decided the way to target our youth was to give money to law enforcement,” said Kamau Franklin, a racial justice attorney for the Center of Constitutional Rights. “Parents, concerned community members, church groups and various organizations and institutions must accept the responsibility for our youth and get the word out that this is just another way of pipelining them from the streets into the prisons.”
Enhancing law enforcement’s powers means enhancing racial profiling against Black youth, he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) sponsored S.456, which passed unanimously in the Senate.
Adam Schiff (D-Calif) sponsored HR 1582, now in its early stages in the House. Both bills are called the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2007, and would increase penalties for gang crimes and fund some prevention programs. The bills also provide greater resources to law enforcement to fight gang violence.
The Feinstein bill provides for $870 million to be distributed over five years. The bill advocates taking $500 million to create new “High Intensity Interstate Gang Activity Areas” (with half the money going to law enforcement and half shared by schools, school districts and faith leaders); using $100 million to reduce gun violence; and putting aside $270 million for witness protection grants.
Both bills would establish national registries:The Justice Department would maintain a National Gang Research, Evaluation and Policy Institute to facilitate gang violence suppression, prevention and intervention, under Sen. Feinstein’s bill.The other bill would have the FBI set up a National Gang Activity Database for distribution to law enforcement agencies and to track movement of gangs and members. The Feinstein bill grants attorney generals and governors the power to designate gang activity areas and create prevention collaboratives to provide assistance to such areas.
Stiffer penalties come with the Feinstein bill, including life imprisonment for gang-related murders; five years to life for kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse or maiming; and zero to 30 years for any serious violent felony.
New proposed crimes include recruiting gang members, which carries a zero to 10 year penalty; recruiting a minor, one to 20 years; and recruiting from prison, five to 20 years.
“It’s really a suppression bill with prevention frosting, but the real heart, the cake of the bill, is for law enforcement and she can sugar it up all she wants, but it’s still a suppression bill,” insisted Kim McGill of the L.A.-based Youth Justice Coalition.
The coalition represents thousands of L.A. youth who have been in the prison system at one point in their lives.
Despite its extensive war on drugs, particularly in L.A. County, the political leaders have consistently bred gang violence with “anti-Black/Latino male prison policies,” argued Ms. McGill.
Stan Muhammad, executive director of Venice 2000, a gang intervention organization in Venice, Calif., told The Final Call, “Although we should not rely on government, it’s a minor victory just to know that they’re even considering allowing the grassroots intervention agencies to be a part of the funding source. But the only thing they will really pay attention to is the collective group that provides services throughout the county, city and state.”
In its recent report, “Unlocking America:Why and How to Reduce America’s Prison Population,” the JFA Institute concludes current prison policy has worsened the national problem of social and racial inequality: Blacks and Latinos incarcerated at rates now more than six times higher than Whites; Blacks and Latinos comprise 60 percent of America’s prison population; and eight percent of Black men of working age are now behind bars, and 21 percent of those between the ages of 25 and 44 have served a sentence at some point in their lives. The report also said, “incarcerating large numbers of people has little impact on crime.”
Ms. McGill told The Final Call that Republicans and Democrats share the blame in America’s push to fill prisons. “People have been getting elected by looking tough on crime for decades for fear that the press or their communities will look down on them,” she said.
“This has meant that we’ve looked tough on crime, but also stupid on crime because I believe that even for young people involved in violent gang crimes, they are victims of a war on youth, which plagues our community. And if we wanted to end gang crimes we have tons of evidence on how to do that–a huge infusion of jobs, youth programs and other youth opportunities in the community and education,” Ms. McGill said.
Three Congressional Black Caucus members, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) and Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md), co-sponsored the Schiff bill, along with 12 other lawmakers.Rep. Johnson plans to withdraw his support when Congress returns from recess, Deb Speights, his communications director, told The Final Call.
“The congressman remains concerned about at-risk youth and is looking to support legislation that focuses more on prevention than incarceration,” she said.
Press aides for congressmen Jackson-Lee and Wynn were attempting to get responses to questions regarding support of the bills at Final Call press time.
Ms. McGill hopes members of the CBC and the Congressional Latino Caucus follow Rep. Johnson’s lead.
There is a prevention-based approach congressmen can support. Rep. Bobby Scott (Va.) introduced the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities,Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education (“Youth PROMISE”) Act (H.R. 3846) in October. The legislation would help at-risk youth and communities through evidence-based prevention and intervention methods.
“Sticking handcuffs on a problem won’t make it go away. The criminal justice system has a role to play in ending gang violence, but to rely solely on it isn’t just naÃ¯ve, it’s irresponsible, and it doesn’t work. Before we talk about second chances, we need to give young people a first chance.
“We need to prevent gang membership before it starts, and the ACLU applauds Rep. Scott’s bill for taking the first step,” said ACLU legislative counsel Jesselyn McCurdy.