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Jail time only part of the answer

The Spokesman-Review

The following editorial appeared Thursday in the Washington Post:

As he travels around the country meeting with prosecutors and police, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has been told repeatedly that street gangs constitute one of the two most vexing challenges facing law enforcement officials; the other is the rising use of the drug methamphetamine.

It’s good that the menace posed by violent gangs in American cities and suburbs has made an impression on Gonzales, although he appears utterly perplexed as to the genesis of the problem. Gangs have taken hold “not just in the Hispanic community but also in the African American community,” he told a group of Post writers and editors. “I don’t know why that’s the case.” He promised to think about it and get back to us.

Whatever his puzzlement over the attraction of gangs to some youths, the attorney general’s instincts on how to address the problem seem basically sound – sounder, perhaps, than those of the Bush administration he serves. While Gonzales’ day job requires him to concentrate on clamping down on gangs through law enforcement, he acknowledges that investigations and prosecution are only a partial answer. A comprehensive strategy, he believes, must include education, prevention and rehabilitation.

“I don’t want Hispanic kids to not go to school and not get an education,” he said. “Sure, we may be able to prosecute them and put them in jail, but that represents a lost future as employees, as future leaders in our community. We can’t afford it.”

Nonetheless, a bill backed by the Bush administration and passed by the House would unwisely federalize many local street crimes, stripping them from state prosecution if they can be tied even tenuously to gang activity. The so-called “gangbusters bill” also would establish mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, which would remove much flexibility from sentencing and make little allowance for the circumstances of individual defendants. Similar federal and state schemes have proved unfair and harmful.

Gang violence is a serious threat to the communities where it has taken hold, and in some cases, it merits tough treatment by the criminal justice system. But Gonzales is justified in his apparent unease about locking up gang members and throwing away the keys.

President Bush has proposed spending $150 million over three years to prevent gang involvement, with the funds to be dispersed through grants to faith-based and community organizations that attempt to steer at-risk youths away from gangs and into supportive social programs. Both the House and Senate have cut that request but appear likely to appropriate some funds.

The success of that program – not just Draconian sentencing or increased federal investigations and prosecution – will be a critical test of whether the Bush administration’s commitment to combating gangs is real or just a rhetorical priority.

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