Anti-Crime Hysteria in the U.S. Congress

Anti-Crime Hysteria in the U.S. Congress

Miami Herald
May 13, 2005

It was all too predictable that some members of Congress would respond to the menace of immigrant gangs in the United States with headline-grabbing legislation that does little to cure the problem but looks good in a campaign ad. We refer to the so-called ''Gangbusters'' legislation, HR 1279, approved yesterday in the House of Representatives, that will almost surely increase prison populations and the cost of crime-fighting without reducing gang-related crimes.

The bill includes a host of odious provisions. For example, it would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be transferred to adult court without judicial review, and imposes mandatory-minimum sentences regardless of circumstances. One opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., characterized this as ``10-year mandatory minimums for second-offense fist fights.''

Granted, gang members commit far more heinous crimes than fist fights, but the point is that mandatory minimums have a dragnet effect that sweeps away both the worst offenders and those with less culpability. ''Adult time for adult crime'' makes for a great slogan. Yet sending teens to mix with hardened cons is more likely to turn young men into repeat offenders than if they had been dealt with in the juvenile-justice system.

The legislation federalizes street crime -- long the province of state and local police -- and also pays local law-enforcement officers for routine activities they already perform. ''It's better that it stays state law -- that's the true conservative position,'' said Rep. Robert Inglis, R-S.C. Alas, he was the only Republican to vote against the bill when it was approved in committee.

Opponents believe that this punitive legislation is unneeded, given anti-Mafia statutes and other laws targeting organized crime. When egregious offenders are sentenced, prosecutors and judges already have access to severe penalties. Passage of this bill would ensure only that less serious offenders receive the same harsh treatment.

In many ways, the legislation mirrors the errors of the anti-drug laws that increased sentencing and clogged prisons and court dockets without reducing the actual menace of drugs. Worse, debate in the House on Wednesday contained an offensive tone that combined xenophobia with anti-crime hysteria. GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, noting the Hispanic make-up of many gangs, claimed they were destroying neighborhoods. ``People that cut off hands and arms and heads . . . that's what this culture has fostered.''

We can only hope that a Senate version combining tough anti-gang measures with new funding for crime-prevention programs leads to a more-acceptable compromise bill.

In the end, better policing and better community programs are more likely to reduce gang crimes than popular slogans.

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