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Executive Summary #20 on Crime

June 6, 2007

Executive Summary: Gang Crime: Effective and ConstitutionalPolicies to Stop Violent Gangs

By and

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported in 2006 that violent crime incidents increased by 1.3 percent and property crime incidents decreased by 2.9 percent from 2005 to 2006. The small increase in violent crime needs to be interpreted with cau­tion because the figure does not adjust for popula­tion growth. Thus, the actual increase in violent crime may be overstated.

Nevertheless, the potential for this slight increase to develop into a long-term trend is cause for con­cern. Some stories have also reported an increase in gang crime, fueling fears that gang crime might reassert itself as a major problem.

Due to the public safety concerns posed by criminal gangs, Members of Congress have pro­posed expanding the national government's role in fighting crime, overshadowing what has been the traditional realm of state and local governments. They also advocate expanding current national government programs thought to address gang crime, even though little evidence suggests that the existing national programs are successful in gang prevention or suppression.

The tendency to search for a solution at the national level is misguided and problematic. Fed­eral crimes should address problems reserved to the national government in the Constitution. Criminal street gangs are a problem common to all of the states, but the crimes that they commit are almost entirely and inherently local in nature and regulated by state criminal law, law enforcement, and courts.

Members of Congress should affirm the proper division of authority between the federal govern­ment and the states in combating violent crime by reducing federal intrusions into state and local crime-fighting activities.

To address gang-related crime appropriately, the national government should limit itself to han­dling tasks that are within its constitutionally designed sphere and that state and local govern­ments cannot perform by themselves. Some crimes committed by gangs are predominantly interstate in nature, such as a purposeful scheme to trans­port stolen goods across state lines to evade detec­tion using interstate or international banking facilities. Such conduct falls under Congress's con­stitutional power to regulate interstate commerce and already is the focus of federal criminal law.

In addition, the national government is well situ­ated to help coordinate information sharing and research on law enforcement activities that involve reducing interstate gang-related crime, securing the nation's borders, deporting gang members who are illegal immigrants, and incarcerating them if they return to the United States illegally.

Along these lines, the federal government could combat gang crime in four ways:

  • Improve information sharing and coordination,

  • Secure the nation's borders,

  • Deport illegal immigrants who commit gang crimes and incarcerate criminal illegal immi­grants if they return to the United States illegally after deportation, and

  • Improve international law enforcement coordination.

State and local governments are the most appro­priate level of government to develop policies to prevent and suppress most gang-related crime because gang crimes are almost entirely and inher­ently local in nature. On the prevention side, Boys and Girls Clubs and multisystemic therapy have a track record of success in preventing delinquency and may be promising gang-related crime-preven­tion programs. For gang suppression, Boston's Operation Ceasefire demonstrated that a law enforcement strategy based on generating a strong deterrent to gang violence can make a difference.

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis and Erica Little is Legal Policy Analyst in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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