Gang-related homicides in Orange County dropped for the fifth consecutive year in 2000, a signal that tough sentencing laws have removed some of the county's most violent predators from the streets, law enforcement officials said Monday.
The county's 16 gang killings last year marked a 78% decline from a peak in 1993, when officials deemed gang violence an epidemic, according to figures released by the Orange County district attorney's office.
The number of gangs and gang members in Orange County also decreased, the report said.
"It's much safer and much quieter than it was a decade ago--dramatically different," Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters said. "It has been a tremendous turnaround."
Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas credited the drop, in part, to new laws that tack on additional prison time--decades in some cases--for those convicted of gang-related crimes.
The number of gang members in Orange County dropped nearly 10% from 1998 to 2000, the district attorney's report estimates.
"These violent criminals, once they get the lengthy prison terms, we don't see them again," Rackauckas said.
"We've always known a very small minority of people commit a large number of the crimes. As you start putting them away, it starts making an impact," he said.
The decrease in Orange County's gang violence was particularly noteworthy, officials said, because it came at a time when violent crime in the United States increased slightly last year after several years of decline, according to FBI figures.
Orange County law enforcement officials credited gang enforcement teams--one program combines deputy district attorneys, probation officers and police--for the decreased violence.
Rackauckas said one recently enacted law can tack 10 years onto the sentence of anyone convicted of a crime in which a gun was used.
But less than a decade after gang violence seemed an epidemic in Orange County, detectives now have the time to dust off old files and tackle unsolved killings.
"Some of our senior officers say, 'If you had told me 10 years ago what it would be like today, I never would have believed you,' " said Walters, whose 400-officer force is the county's largest.