Some Illinois policymakers and lawmakers have expressed concern about a new measure that targets street gangs as organized crime, saying it could lead to a greater incarceration rate of people of color.
The concern stems from legislation signed in to law earlier this month by Gov. Pat Quinn that is modeled after the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The singular law allows local prosecutors to investigate and indict gang cases applying the tools typically utilized in federal prosecutions, officials said.
In the past, state and local prosecutors were only able to charge individual gang crimes and rarely, if ever, were able to prosecute and hold gang leaders accountable for the organized activities of the street gang and its underlings, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said in a prepared statement.
Now, prosecutors can target gang activities involving illegal weapons, sex offenses, terrorism, and drug trafficking, Alvarez said in the news release. About 30 other states have similar laws, according to her office, but no one law is the same.
Not everyone is excited about the measure.
Frank E. Watkins, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), doesn’t agree with the new law, saying he’s in the process of reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, who is an Ohio State University law professor and civil rights activist. She has often been quoted as saying that more Black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than the number of Black men enslaved in 1850.
“To just say, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key,’ really won’t solve the crime problem,” Watkins told NewsOne. “Even if the law is successful, it won’t solve the crime problem. The underlying problems that need to be addressed are health care, education, jobs and affordable housing. In communities where those things are stable, you don’t have major crime problems.”
According to the Chicago Crime Commission, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the city’s criminal justice system, there are an estimated 70 to 100 gangs in the Chicago metropolitan area with a membership of between 68,000 to more than 150,000. A racial breakdown was not available.
Watch Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel discuss the city’s egregious gang problem:
“The key challenge for Chicago and other cities trying to reduce homicide and gun violence is to figure out a way to get the benefits of what New York has done [dropping their homicide rate by more than 80 percent in the last 15 years to a rate 1/3 of Chicago’s] without all of the collateral costs particularly to young men of color,” Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, a nonprofit organization that studies crime prevention, told NewsOne in response to a question about the new law leading to a greater incarceration rate of people of color. Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Ill.) told NewsOne that he, too, has concerns about the mass incarceration of men of color, but he views the problem through a different lens.
“Clearly there is a high percentage of African Americans and Latin Americans involved in street gang crimes,” Raoul told NewsOne. “Yes, this [the law] will have a disproportionate effect on Latinos and African American, but I have no intention of protecting African Americans and Latinos who are preying on other African Americans and Latinos.”
Gov. Quinn signed the law at a precarious time: Chicago is experiencing an uptick in crime, and during a recent sultry weekend earlier this month, eight people were killed and at least 40 were wounded in shootings around the city, according to Chicago Police Department. So far this year, the city has reported 223 homicides, a 35 percent increase over the same time period last year.
Watch one of Chicago’s bloodiest weekends here:
Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who welcomes the new law as a tool to fight against gangs in the city, has often said that up to 80 percent of the shootings and homicides in the city are gang-related.
“The Chicago Police Department is committed to making Chicago a safe place to live, work, and play for our residents and we will use all available resources, including the new RICO law, to ensure the safety of communities across Chicago,” McCarthy said in a statement prepared by Cook County State’s Attorney Alvarez.
Now, the effectiveness of the law remains to be seen.