Nothing's scarier than gangsta justice
By James Alan Fox
Monday, January 16, 2006

"You can't kid a kiddah." That's what my mother used to say whenever I tried to pull a fast one on her or circumvent her rules.

While attending last week's State House press conference that featured a host of politicians, criminal justice officials and clergymen promoting legislation to reduce gang-related witness intimidation, I imagined my mother's voice: "You can't intimidate an intimidatah."

The newest tool in the fight against gang violence is to threaten gang members with fines of up to $5,000 or incarceration of up to 10 years if they attempt to threaten witnesses. The expectation - more like the hope - is that our criminal justice sanctions will be more potent than those of the street.

I asked Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and others whether this bill had any real teeth - whether the penalties would really dissuade a gangbanger or his loyal associates from using whatever means possible (including the street-justice version of the death penalty) to discourage witnesses from snitching to the cops or testifying in court. Compared to long-term sentences for convictions of street violence, the sanctions against intimidation are more like baby teeth than molars.

Unlike our formal system of justice, street justice in the gangsta court is immediate, with no appeals or procedural technicalities. Plus, the burden of proof is mere suspicion, nothing close to "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Doubts about the effectiveness of this approach aren't new. A 1996 government-sponsored report noted:

"Most gang-related witness intimidation occurs in connection with violent crimes such as attempted murder or homicide, which carry potentially long prison sentences. In a number of jurisdictions, statutes . . . do not carry high enough penalties to either deter or substantially punish witness intimidation in cases that already involve a serious violent crime. As a result, defendants are reported to feel they have little to lose - and a great deal to gain - from even the most violent attempts at witness intimidation."

This wise commentary was, in fact, co-authored by Healey during her pre-political days as a criminologist.

At the press briefing, Healey responded that her version of the bill had included a penalty for witness intimidation of up to 20 years, substantially more than the Senate or House versions. The extra years would, however, only kick in if the victim of intimidation was seriously injured, such as permanent disfigurement, loss of limb or substantial risk of death. We already have laws against that kind of serious assault, and apparently they don't always work either.

So our new tool for combating gang-related witness intimidation is like a hacksaw while the gangs are wielding a chainsaw. Something is better than nothing, of course. Yet, this bill may turn out to be just another ineffective quick fix to a difficult and complex problem.

In today's climate of fear, it is not surprising that the anti-gang bill passed the House with little opposition. Rep. Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield) was one of two legislators who voted against the measure, calling it a "feel-good deal" with little effect. His concern is dead on: What are we doing to prevent gang violence?

Kids join gangs for many good reasons: companionship, status, mentoring, protection. Gangs readily provide the very functions that traditional institutions have abandoned. Successful gang suppression involves reaching youngsters early, while they're still impressionable and can be impressed with what a teacher or a preacher has to say.

In the balance between prevention and enforcement, we are heavy on the stick and light on the carrot. Our best focal point is long before the intimidating starts.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at