Potomac News Online | ‘Gangbuster’ bill has a doubter

WASHINGTON — As Alexandria prepares for a grim gang-violence trial, two Virginia lawmakers clashed — cordially — in Congress yesterday over the best ways to combat rising gang crime nationwide.


“Gangs have declared war on our nation,” warned Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a Chesapeake Republican who led a House subcommittee hearing on his bill for mandatory minimum federal sentences, new federal prosecutors and others steps to battle gang activity.

Urging Congress to “bring a new force to bear” on criminal gang activity, the 4th District lawmaker added, “We’re going to tear it apart and rip it out.”

But Rep. Robert C. Scott of Newport News, senior Democrat on the House subcommittee on crime, belittled the bill nicknamed “Gangbuster” as wasteful of federal dollars and even counter-productive.

The bill “reflects the politics of crime where you come up with a good slogan and codify it. It doesn’t do anything to reduce crime,” argued Scott, Forbes’ 3rd District neighbor.

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Scott criticized mandatory minimum sentences as harmful and bill provisions that would result in the trial of more juveniles as adults as ineffective, even leading to more crime. Using data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Scott said the bill would cost almost $2 billion for new prison construction over 10 years.

Forbes and Scott talked about continuing to work together on issues of mutual interest to their region and didn’t get nasty. Yet sitting side-by-side in a rare scene of one Virginian vigorously challenging another, the duo reflected a philosophical chasm. Virginia’s seven other House Republicans have signed on to Forbes’ bill.

Next week, violence and gang life will be the focus of a trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, part of a law-enforcement crackdown on the MS-13 street gang.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against four gang members charged with planning and carrying out the murder of a woman who was about to testify in another MS-13 slaying case; the body of the 17-year-old victim was pulled from the Shenandoah River in July 2003.

At yesterday’s hearing, Michelle Guess of Edgewood, Md., choked up in telling about the gunshot murder of her husband — a minister — by a teenager engaging in a “random gang initiation ritual.”

In counterpoint, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Richmond, Robert E. Shepherd Jr. urged that Congress invest dollars in delinquency prevention and intervention programs, combined with federal help to local authorities, as a more effective federal approach to fighting gang crime.

Separately, key provisions of Forbes’ bill were questioned in a letter by a number of Virginia groups and residents, including the Virginia Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the Mid-Atlantic Juvenile Defender Center at the University of Richmond law school.

Forbes, while not naming foes, said, “We recognize that there are those who want [the bill] softer, but criminal gangs in America are not soft and the crimes they commit are real and they are hard.”

Contact Peter Hardin at (202) 662-7669 or [email protected]

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