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Anti-gang racketeering bill will fight the ‘disease,’ Alvarez says

States Attorney  AnitAlvarez Chcago  Police Supt. Garry McCarthy outlined new “initiative crack down gang violence” press conference June

States Attorney Anita Alvarez and Chcago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy outlined a new “initiative to crack down on gang violence” at a press conference on June 6, 2012 | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 8, 2012 6:49PM

Every day, Mayor Rahm Emanuel calls top cop Garry McCarthy and asks him about homicides in the city.

Killings have spiked by more than 50 percent in Chicago this year compared to last — but soon McCarthy may have a new tool that will help him and Cook County prosecutors go after those he says are committing the majority of the murders: gang members.

“I can’t go back to March and fix what happened in March but what we can do is fix it moving forward,” McCarthy said Wednesday, citing various initiatives, including the Street Gang and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that was passed by the General Assembly last week.

“One shooting is too many but the fact is crime reduction is a process. It’s not something that we just say ‘Boom, we’re done. It’s over.’ This represents another tool in that toolbox, that arsenal, to turn crime in the right direction.”

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations — RICO — charges have long been used in federal prosecutions to nab mobsters and gangsters in the suburbs. Now it’s county prosecutors with a chance to use similar charges.

The proposed racketeering legislation, which has yet to be signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, will make it easier to prosecute gang leaders in the city and crush the illegal organizations in one fell swoop, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said at a news conference with McCarthy and the sponsors of the bill, state Sen. Tony Munoz (D-Chicago) and state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Chicago).

Quinn, meanwhile, signaled a possible willingness to enact the bill. “The governor is always interested in legislation that protects and improves public safety,” Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said Wednesday. “We’re looking forward to reviewing that bill once it gets to his desk.”

Under the law, gangs would be treated as a criminal enterprise, allowing cops and prosecutors to fight the “disease and not just the symptoms,” as assistant state’s attorneys string together different gang crimes into a single case in an effort to dismantle the organization and hold gang leaders accountable when they commit crimes or order others to carry them out, Alvarez said.

“Under our current state law, we really are only able to prosecute gang crime as isolated events and essentially attack the problem one crime at a time,” Alvarez said.

“As a result of this approach, gang leaders continue to insulate themselves from prosecution by replacing their underlings when they get arrested and are thrown in prison.”

Roughly 75 to 80 percent of the murders in the city can be attributed to gang activity and the rise in violence rises as the 600 factions of gangs splinter, increasing conflicts and enmity, McCarthy said.

That bloodshed can be curbed with the “Street Gang RICO” law, the superintendent said.

“We are already looking back at cases that we recently took down, which may in fact fall into the parameter of this statute,” he said.

At least 31 states have similar racketeering statutes, Munoz said. The legislation supported by the mayor identifies more than 60 crimes — from first-degree murder all the way down to burglary — that would qualify for enhanced penalties under its racketeering provisions.

The goal, through the “Street Gang RICO,” Alvarez said, is to “join different criminal offenses under one pattern and hopefully get to the guys who are calling the shots.”

The Illinois State Bar Association, which represents the defense bar, isn’t so sure the law will necessarily do what it intends. That group and public defenders argued last week the legislation is too broad and arms prosecutors with too much power to target small-time criminals rather than just gang leaders with enhanced penalties.

“The wording is so inclusive and vague, it arguably includes anyone they want to. Does it include the drug dealer on the corner or is it the guy who organizes the guy on the corner? It’s one of those ‘Trust us, we’re the government’ attitudes,” said Steve Baker, legislative liaison for the Cook County Public Defender’s office.

“Is it going to reduce the murder rate in the city of Chicago? I don’t think so,” Baker said.

But McCarthy and at least one high ranking officer disagreed.

Had the law been in place, the leaders tied to a 2006 feud that led to murders of at least 19 gang members and a deadly shootout would have been behind bars, said Nick Roti, chief of the Organized Crime Division.

“It gets to the root of the problem,” Roti said of the proposed law.

Zalewski said Illinois needs the law because “we have a gaping hole in our criminal code.”

“We’re not allowed to treat gangs for essentially what they are, which is criminal corporations. They have a hierarchies, they have leaderships, they have diversity of action and when you couple that all together and make it into one single action you do wonders to ensure that the right people go to prison,” he said.

McCarthy added, “This is a tool that close that gap [in the system].”

To facilitate the prosecutions of cases that could fall under the statute, Alvarez announced Wednesday that she will be forming a Racketeering Unit that will consist of four or five assistant state’s attorneys from gang and complex narcotics units.

Heading that unit will be Jack Blakey, chief of the state’s attorney’s special prosecutions bureau.

Blakey’s father, G. Robert Blakey, was the principal author of the RICO Act.

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