By Matthew Lynch, Ed.D.
A new Illinois anti-gang law has caused quite a stir in recent weeks, raising eyebrows among black policymakers and activists who suggest the law may have racial overtones. The legislation, signed by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in early June, permits state prosecutors to apply investigation tactics similar to that of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
Many believe this new law unfairly targets people of color and will ultimately lead to a significant increase in the number of blacks who are incarcerated in Illinois. Some consider this yet another link in a long chain of legal decisions rendered to covertly obstruct the advancement of African Americans.
RICO, which was initially passed in the 1970’s to punish crimes committed by the mafia, now extends to street and prison gangs. More than 30 states are using RICO criteria to incarcerate gang members. In addition to being charged with individual felonies, like extortion and narcotics distribution, RICO statutes give investigators the right to indict gang members on racketeering charges -which carry a hefty sentence of 20 years per count.
Essentially, RICO permits racketeering charges to be brought upon anyone who participates in organized crime. This includes leaders who order the execution of crimes, but do not physically carry them out. Now, every offender involved in a gang’s illegal activity can be tried in one criminal procedure. This effectively puts an entire gang on trial, not just a few isolated individuals, as was previously the case. It also holds the top echelons of a gang’s hierarchy accountable, where these individuals were once untouchable from a legal standpoint.
“For the first time in the history of our state, this new law will give local prosecutors the tools to identify and address patterns in multiple gang-related offenses and join different offenses and offenders into a single court proceeding,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in a recent statement. “This new law will require fundamental changes in the way state prosecutors approach gang crimes because racketeering has not existed under Illinois law in any meaningful shape or form,” Alvarez reported.
While this may seem like a reasonable solution, the truth is this new law will only compound the obvious racial bias that pervades the U. S. the judicial system. According to the Chicago Crime Commission, there are as many as 100 rival gangs in the Chicago metropolitan area with a membership as large as 70,000.
It’s no secret the United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world with more than 1.6 million men and women currently behind bars. What many don’t know is there are more African American men currently incarcerated than the number who were enslaved in the U.S. in 1850. In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 3,074 black men per 100,000 were incarcerated, as opposed to 459 white men per 100,000. This means there are seven times more black men doing time in America than their white counterparts.
These shocking figures have become the basis for the argument against RICO laws. While blacks only account for 13 percent of the population, more than half of all prisons in America are populated by non-Hispanic people of color. Many of these inmates are affiliated with a gang.
Frank E. Watkins, press secretary for U.S. Rep Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, is just one of many predominant black leaders who have been outspoken about the new anti-gang measure. He has told news sources that he disagrees with the fundamental philosophy behind the law and he is not alone. There is no simple solution to this problem, though it is one that continues to plague the nation.
Numerous black legislators, policy-makers and elected officials have dedicated extensive resources to ending gang affiliations and their subsequent violence. Black community leaders and prominent church figures have clocked countless hours in town hall meetings strategizing about how to encourage young people to stay away from gangs. Authors, activists and advocates have done their part to educate the public about this crucial avenue of the American landscape.
The irony is -gang activity is far more prevalent inside the walls of a penitentiary than it will ever be in the free world. If gang members are charged and convicted of racketeering only to go to a detention center where they will join fellow gang members and continue to commit egregious offenses…..in essence, hasn’t the system itself produced its own version of organized crime?
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