It's an arresting idea, so to speak.
Round up 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples street gang and put them behind bars awaiting trial.
On what charges?
"Drug dealing," said U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., when he first publicly advanced the notion earlier this month in a TV interview on WFLD-Ch. 32. And "murdering people, which is what they do," he continued.
Hadiya, a 15-year-old honors student at King College Prep, was shot and killed in a South Side park in late January, allegedly by a man affiliated with the Gangster Disciples.
"And if they complain," about the mass arrests, Kirk said, "just say this is about the death of Hadiya Pendleton."
Well, there's a lot wrong with Kirk's plan, which U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., blasted as "a sensational, headline-grabbing, empty, simplistic, unworkable approach" in an interview with the Sun-Times Wednesday.
First, in America we don't just go around locking people up because of who they hang out with or what we think they might do (or at least we haven't since we interned Japanese-Americans during World War II).
Second, even if the Constitution allowed for such a mass arrest, we don't have anywhere to put 18,000 new prisoners. Cook County Jail holds about 10,000 inmates, but it's already nearly at capacity. The Metropolitan Correctional Center downtown houses fewer than 500 inmates and the now-vacant Thomson Correctional Center, which Kirk mentioned as a possible repository for the fruits of his proposed gang sweep, has a capacity of about 1,800 prisoners.
Third, though 18,000 members is a decent ballpark estimate for the Gangster Disciples in the Chicago area — the Chicago Crime Commission puts the number at somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 — the organization, such as it is, is so splintered as to make that number difficult to interpret. The commission estimates there are 250 subgroups, many of them bitter rivals, under the Gangster Disciple umbrella.
For instance, police say the suspects in Hadiya's killing were members of the SUWU faction of the Gangster Disciples who were targeting members of the 4-6 Terror faction.
Fourth, Kirk's estimate that 40 percent of the city's murders are "due to the Gangster Disciples" appears high. Last year, about 1 in 4 of the city's homicide victims were affiliated with the gang, according to police data. So far this year it's more like 1 in 10.
And fifth, there's a very real question, raised by Rush and others, about whether we can ever arrest and imprison our way out of the malignant effects of gang violence on our cities. Some of the $30 million in federal money Kirk is calling for to bring the hammer down on the Gangster Disciples would be better used for jobs, education and housing.
Nevertheless, as raw, outlandish and half-baked as Kirk's proposal is, and as murky as his numbers are and as weak as his understanding of cause and effect may be, give him credit for advancing the idea that we need a new, stronger approach to combat gang violence, and for reminding us how huge the problem truly is.
U.S. Sen Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has joined Kirk in this effort but has not echoed his call for mass arrests, put it this way in a quote provided by his office Thursday: "It's a good idea, putting more federal resources in to fight crime, particularly when local units of government are struggling with their own budgets," Durbin said. "I'm willing to help (Kirk). I want to bring all the federal resources we can to the communities that are hit with crime."
Now that Kirk's wacky statements have our attention, let the serious planning begin.
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