Senator wants entire Chicago gang arrested. Would that work?

Chicago's Gangster Disciples have more than 18,000 members, and Sen. Mark Kirk wants them all in jail to curb gun violence. But critics say mass incarceration isn't the answer.

Robert Ray/AP/File
The Chicago Police gang enforcement unit stops a car with four suspected gang members and arrests one of them on a warrant in this 2012 photo. Sen. Mark Kirk wants to round up all the members of the Gangster Disciples.

Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk (R) is recommending that the next US attorney in Chicago step up federal efforts to combat street gang violence through mass arrests of the Gangster Disciples, the prevailing criminal outfit operating on Chicago streets.

Senator Kirk said he wants to see all 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples prosecuted in federal court and said he believes “it’s completely within the capability of the United States government to crush a major urban gang.” He said the effort will require $30 million in federal funding but is necessary to stop the killing of innocent bystanders like Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago girl who was killed by Gangster Disciples in January a week after after performing in a marching band at President Obama's inauguration.

But others question the wisdom of Kirk's proposal, with one member of Congress calling it an “upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about.”

Estimates vary for how big the Gangster Disciples are in Chicago. The largest estimate is 30,000, according to the Chicago Crime Commission. But the gang, which dates to the 1960s, was largely dismantled in 1997 when federal prosecutors jailed more than 40 leaders in a case involving extortion and drug trafficking.

Before that, the organization included a musical promotion company, a political-action committee, and an interstate drug and gun distribution network. Today, the Gangster Disciples are no longer single criminal enterprise but are represented through smaller, neighborhood factions that are largely leaderless and disconnected from one another.

“They’re almost like a brand.... If you call yourself a Disciple, you’ve got your claim to some past. There’s a history there that’s really important and empowering,” says Andrew Papachristos, a sociology professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., who studies gangs and social networks.

The shifting nature of gang violence has led law enforcement away from the mass arrests that Kirk is advocating. Antigang strategies now focus more on individual leaders and crews, which, although small, may operate under their own hierarchy, Mr. Papachristos says. The violence, he says, is often the result of younger and undisciplined neighborhood operators who behave without the strict supervision of their older bosses.

Even though Papachristos says that federal prosecutors play a “really important role” in gang violence, he says it is becoming obvious that law enforcement “can’t arrest your way out of a gang problem. We’re not in the age of mass incarceration.”

For his part, Kirk told reporters that targeting the street gang is “payback” for Hadiya’s death. But Rep. Bobby Rush (D) of Illinois criticized Kirk’s proposal Wednesday, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that it represented an “upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about.”

Representative Rush later clarified to the newspaper that he felt the $30 million would be better spentto improve life in neighborhoods, such as jobs, quality health care, and schools, which would ultimately reduce violence in city neighborhoods.

“Certainly a plan to incarcerate 18,000 black men is elitist. Why is incarceration the sole option instead of rehabilitation which is proven to work and not locking young men up?” he wrote to the newspaper via e-mail.

Kirk made his announcement Wednesday after meeting with Zachary Fardon, the nominee to succeed Patrick Fitzgerald, the departing US attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, lauded for his successful prosecutions of former Illinois Govs. Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan, among others. Kirk and Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois are leading a screening process that will recommend Mr. Fardon to President Obama for consideration.

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