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
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
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