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Va. representatives press for tough stance on gangs

By DALE EISMAN, The Virginian-Pilot
© March 17, 2005 | Last updated 11:03 PM Mar. 16

WASHINGTON — Virginia’s Republican congressmen pressed Wednesday for a federal crackdown on gang violence, introducing legislation that they said would provide money and manpower for state and local police and new penalties for those convicted of gang crimes.

“For the most part, we’ve turned our heads and just pretended they didn’t exist,” Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-4th District, said of the criminal street gangs targeted by the legislation.

Forbes said more than 750,000 people, most of them young, now belong to violent gangs across the United State. That’s roughly equal to the number of people on active duty in the Army and Navy, he said.

Some gangs have targeted police and are recruiting elementary school students to join them, Forbes said.

Police said a variety of gangs are active in Virginia, including in Hampton Roads. Norfolk police have had an anti-gang unit since 1990.

Detective Gene Ballance, a member of Norfolk’s four-man anti-gang squad, said Wednesday that any additional help would be welcome. But money for more officers and resources at the local level would probably be more effective than a new federal role in gang prosecutions, he suggested.

Forbes said he expects that some Democrats will sign on as co-sponsors of his bill.

Forbes’ bill would provide mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes committed as part of any gang activity.

State laws typically permit lengthy sentences for violent crimes, regardless of whether they’re committed as part of gang activity. But Forbes argued Wednesday that federal involvement could strengthen local attacks on the problem.

His bill would authorize up to $20 million per year for federal anti-gang prosecutions and enforcement, though separate legislation would be needed to actually provide the money.