Gang Bill Panders to Irrational Fear

Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is executive director of Jobs for a Future/Homeboy Industries.

First, the good news. As we approach the end of 2003, we know what works in dealing with gangs. Gang experts, intervention practitioners, social scientists, researchers and enlightened law enforcement officials all agree. You can’t attend a national conference and not hear “prevention, intervention and enforcement.” (The more sophisticated conferences include “prison aftercare.”)

You prevent kids from joining gangs by offering after-school programs, sports, mentoring and positive engagement with adults. You intervene with gang members by offering alternatives and employment to help redirect their lives. You deal with areas of high gang crime activity with real community policing. We know what works.

Now, the bad news. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) have introduced the so-called Gang Prevention and Effective Deterrence Act. This bill does not fund what works well, only what plays well -- politically.


The legislation seeks $450 million to aid law enforcement and prosecutors. It is rife with new categories of crimes, added punishments for having a gun or being a gang member and myriad “think twice” measures -- hoping gang members will reconsider before committing a crime.

Anyone who knows gangs knows that lawmakers cannot conceive of a law that would lead a hard-core gang member to “think twice.” We already have enough gang- and gun-related sentencing “enhancements” to send a 17-year-old who has never been in trouble with the law to prison for 35 years to life. And that’s without his ever touching a gun or ever being an actual member of a gang.

We need to overhaul these enhancements, not add to them.

Law enforcement doesn’t need more tools; it needs more officers. Real community policing requires different deployment, which can happen only with increased personnel. If the Los Angeles Police Department had enough officers, it could focus on one part of the community and stay there long enough to know and respect the people the officers are called on to protect and serve.

On any given shift, only 20 officers patrol the Hollenbeck Division, which is more than twice the size of San Francisco. The Feinstein/Hatch bill does nothing to correct that kind of disparity.

Surely the engine that moves this bill, in part, is the full embracing of the mythic “super predator” juvenile. This alarming image, first invoked by social scientist John DiIulio in a 1996 report from the Council of Crime in America, has been endlessly and hysterically underscored by the media. Gangs remain a problem, but that hysteria has kept us from a measured, effective response.

No one, including Feinstein and Hatch, wants to be bothered by the fact that homicides committed by juveniles are at their lowest level in more than a generation. DiIulio has long recanted his own view. Only lawmakers seem to cling to it.

Nearly 15 years ago, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates and Sheriff Sherman Block declared that gang violence was a social ill and not law enforcement’s problem to solve. They were correctly heralded. Yet, since then, we have continued to hand blank checks to the LAPD, the sheriff, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and we have asked them to handle every single aspect needed to reverse the gang presence in our communities. This is also true of the current bill. Were it sensible, the money would be evenly distributed among the areas of essential stakeholders, i.e., after-school programs, job creation projects, detention aftercare.

Although the Feinstein-Hatch bill would also allocate $200 million for prevention and intervention, more than three-quarters of that money would be administered by law enforcement. That is as misguided as having Homeboy Industries -- a gang rehab center -- enforce a gang injunction.

I am not asking that law enforcement invite other players to the table; I’m insisting that it’s not law enforcement’s table to begin with. The task of dealing comprehensively with gangs belongs to the city, not to law enforcement.

Those of us who work with this issue are left scratching our heads as legislators refuse to fund what succeeds. It would at least be honest to name this bill the “Gang Fear Pandering Act” because, as written now, it would neither prevent nor effectively deter.

Back to the drawing board.