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Kennedy On The Gang Abatement And Prevention Act

Press Release

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Gang violence is a serious problem in many communities across the nation, and it deserves a serious response by Congress. We need a range of initiatives including aggressive steps to take guns out of the hands of criminal gang members and other violent offenders, and effective prevention programs that discourage gang membership and provide realistic alternatives for at-risk youth.

Today, the Committee hears testimony from one of my constituents who is a leading expert with extensive experience on this issue --Gregg Croteau, the first Executive Director of the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell, Massachusetts. The Center serves over 150 teens every day in a community where there are over 25-30 active locally-based gangs. Working with state and city leaders, the Center created a Streetworker Peacemaking Project to bring rival gang members together for Peace Summits. These Summits have provided an unprecedented opportunity to bring teens together to build the relationships necessary to end the ongoing violence and move forward in a more positive direction individually and together.

In 2006, Gregg Croteau's leadership resulted in national recognition by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The same year, he received the Fernando Miranda Award as the Massachusetts Outreach Educator of the Year. Reflecting the continuing commitment of the Center as a youth-led organization, Gregg is joined here by his staff members Juan Carlos Rivera, the Director of Streetworker Operations and two young people directly affected by gang violence and now working to make a difference: Sako Long, who now acts as a Streetworker Supervisor and Ricky Le, who recovered from his own experience with gang violence to become an inspiring ambassador for preventing it

Gregg's testimony - and the compelling experiences of those involved with the Center - demonstrate the need for Congress to give equal attention and funding to prevention and intervention measures along with any suppression-oriented approaches.
As another example of what works, I urge my colleagues to consider the innovative, cooperative crime-fighting strategy developed in Boston during the 1990s. It engaged the entire community - police and probation officers, clergy and community leaders, even gang members - in a united effort to reduce gang violence, strengthen after-school prevention programs, and take guns out of the hands of juvenile offenders. The strategy also established new and effective channels of communication between the police and neighborhood leaders.

The strategy was very successful - juvenile homicides dropped 80 percent from 1990 to 1995. It succeeded without prosecuting more juveniles as adults, without housing nonviolent juvenile offenders in adult detention facilities, and without spending large sums of money on new juvenile detention facilities.

Over the next decade, Boston - like many other cities across the country - struggled to maintain funding for these effective programs. Yet the current Administration made dramatic cuts in funding for local law enforcement, and even suggested cutting off funds to the Community Oriented Policing Services program entirely! The resulting decline in federal and state and local law enforcement undermined the ability of Massachusetts and other states to combat violent crime. Now, Boston is working constantly and creatively under the leadership of Mayor Menino to revive these programs. Hopefully, we will receive funding in this Congress to support the COPS program and other federal programs that provide the assistance that state and local law enforcement need.

A report by the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Safety in 2006 concluded unequivocally that successful anti-gang programs depend on a "wide variety of solutions." Relying on recommendations by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the report noted that "preventing youth from joining gangs is the most cost-effective long-term strategy." Reflecting input from an investigative hearing and a working group of ten mayors in metropolitan Boston, the report recognized that there is "no silver bullet for combating gang violence." For this reason, it is misguided for Congress to enact measures that do not recognize the need for flexible and creative solutions to crime in our neighborhoods.

Congress can't ignore these successful efforts to stop gang violence. Since different communities find different ways to combat these difficult issues, we should not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach that will only make the current problem of gang violence worse. Instead of ignoring the primary role of state and local governments in fighting violent gang crimes in their communities, Congress should give local law enforcement and prosecutors the resources they need by authorizing grants for units of local government, along with community-based programs.

For this reason, I urge the Committee to authorize grants to support comprehensive strategies to improve prevention, intervention, diversion and re-entry for youth, including alternative programs for first-time nonviolent offenders, penalties such as mandated participation in community service, restitution, counseling, and education/prevention programs. We also need regional, multi-disciplinary approaches to combat gang violence through coordinated programs for prevention and intervention, coordinated law enforcement, and regional gang task forces and crime mapping strategies, including focused prosecutions and reintegration strategies for offender reentry. All of these approaches should be essential parts of any legislation dealing with federal responses to gang violence.

Witness relocation and protection are also important. The urgency of preventing witness intimidation in gang-related cases can't be overstated. Effective prosecution of such violence depends upon it.

Congress should respect the primary role of state and local governments in fighting street crime, while recognizing that violent gangs can have a substantial impact on federal interests. According to the most recent National Drug Threat Assessment, criminal street gangs are responsible for the distribution of much of the cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and other illegal drugs distributed in communities throughout the United States. Such gang activity interferes with lawful commerce and undermines the freedom and security of entire communities.

I commend the important decision by Senator Feinstein and the co-sponsors of this legislation to avoid increasing mandatory minimum sentences or unnecessarily expanding the federal death penalty to include state murder offenses in the bill introduced in this Congress. It's also very significant that she has removed the troubling provision from her previous bills that would have changed federal laws governing the transfer of juveniles into adult court. We must not forget that the federal government still has the ability to prosecute youths as adults - despite what we know about the need for different standards and procedures for juvenile offenders.

Just over a century ago, the nation's first juvenile court was opened by reformers in Chicago were concerned about the incarceration of juveniles with adults. From the start, the juvenile justice system was founded on the basic principle that troubled children are not just little adults. They have different needs than adult prisoners. So our nation made a commitment that has endured across generations - to provide treatment and rehabilitation, as well as safe conditions of confinement, to vulnerable and troubled youth in our society.

Twenty years ago, Congress passed a law removing young people from adult jails. We have respected the important role of judges in deciding the best course of action for each young offender. But today, this progress is at-risk, too. Many states are reducing the discretion of judges in juvenile cases. At least 29 states have enacted statutes that exclude large categories of cases from the jurisdiction of juvenile courts.

As a result, more and more children are being forced into the adult system. More than 7,000 child prisoners now live alongside adult criminals. The number of youths under 18 in adult jails has nearly tripled in the last fifteen years. When confined with adults, however, juveniles are five times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than in juvenile facilities. The suicide rate of children in adult prisons is seven times higher. We all want to be keep our communities safe, and no one wants dangerous criminals roaming the streets, whether they are adults or juveniles. But the record is very, very clear. The best way to ensure that young offenders will remain harmful to society upon release is to lock them up with adults.

A few weeks ago, the Senate recognized the 40th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision of In re Gault in 1967 declaring that children accused of delinquent acts have a constitutional right to counsel. Before that decision, children accused of delinquency had virtually no legal rights. They were at the mercy of a legal system that often led to unjust results. In that decision, the Court recognized - for the first time -- that the constitutional protections of due process give juveniles the right to fundamental procedural safeguards in juvenile courts, including the right to advance notice of the charges against them, the right to counsel, the privilege against self-incrimination, and the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. Today, too many children still appear in court without the benefit of well-funded and well-trained legal counsel, and too many appear in court with no counsel at all. The federal government should support strategies to improve the juvenile justice system that recognize the unique nature of childhood and adolescence in order to meet the goals set forth in the Gault decision. We should also renew our commitment to continuing and building on the legacy of Gault by addressing the disparities that remain.

I'm not convinced that changes in the current federal penalties would be necessary and effective. I haven't heard any adequate justification for expanding federal prosecutions and incarcerations, without any careful analysis of what the impact of a new "federal gang crime" would mean. Every week, the Department of Justice sends out notices of gangs being prosecuted under RICO. I'm concerned about efforts to create new "gang crimes" outside of the existing RICO statute. As Acting United States Attorney George S. Cardona stated in a Drug Enforcement Administration press release last year, "The RICO statute has proven to be the perfect tool to take the leadership of the Vineland Boys off the streets and put them into federal prisons. With criminal street gangs gaining sophistication and extending their reach across international borders, law enforcement must react with increasingly strong tools to combat their criminal acts and senseless acts of violence. The RICO statute has, in this case, been used to make dramatic changes in our neighborhoods."

It is wrong to put all our eggs in one basket. Any federal legislation considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee on this issue should provide authorization for appropriations for gang prevention and intervention - not just additional authorizations for prosecutions. I urge the my colleagues on the Committee to support approaches that put equal emphasis on prevention of gang violence - and to focus also on the root causes of poverty, racism and poor education that are at the core of violence in our communities. We should all be very concerned about any suggestion that we need to federalize our state and local juvenile justice systems, or that new "gang crimes" are really necessary as a solution to the complex problem.

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