WASHINGTON—Reacting to spreading street violence, Republicans pushed legislation through the House on Wednesday to make gang attacks federal crimes and put gang members in line for long federal prison sentences or even the death penalty.
The measure passed 279-144 after a day of impassioned debate over the wisdom of trying more teens as adults, imposing the death penalty for a wider range of crimes and compelling federal judges to comply with mandatory minimum sentences ranging from 10 years in prison for assault to 30 years for kidnapping.
“We’re talking about machete attacks, witness intimidation, extortion, cold-blooded assassinations, cutting off people’s fingers, cutting off their arms, cutting off their heads,’ said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., the bill’s sponsor.
“You’re not going to stop these violent gang criminals by giving them a Popsicle and a hug,’ he said.
In addition to mandatory minimum sentences, the bill creates a federal racketeering statute similar to the one used to prosecute Mafia members that treats street gangs as an organized crime network. It also expands the definition “gang’ to mean three or more people who commit two or more gang crimes, one of them violent.
The bill drew 71 Democratic supporters, including Rep. Joe Baca of Rialto.
Also voting in favor of the bill were Reps. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, David Dreier, R-Glendora, whose district includes Rancho Cucamonga and Wrightwood, and Howard “Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, whose district includes Victorville and Barstow.
The bill would expand the range of gang crimes punishable by death, establish minimum mandatory sentences, authorize the prosecution of 16- and 17-year-old gang members in federal court as adults, and extend the statute of limitations for all violent crimes from five to 15 years.
Under the bill, federal prosecutors would share about $50 million a year to designate areas of high-intensity interstate gang activity and create law enforcement teams to go after gangs.
Forbes aides said the intent is to produce an estimated 200 new federal anti-gang prosecutions a year that would strike at gang networks much like the federal government has pursued organized crime syndicates.
The bill’s supporters include the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. Opponents include civil-rights groups like the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.
The bill’s prospects in the Senate are uncertain. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have introduced an anti-gang bill that, unlike Forbes’ bill, contains funding for crime-prevention programs and does not include mandatory minimum sentence provisions.