WASHINGTON - Are vague laws crippling efforts to tackle the growing MS-13 gang problem in the D.C. region? According to Montgomery County's state's attorney, he said this is the case and shared his mounting frustrations with FOX 5.
“Under federal criteria right now, if I said I was a member of MS-13, if I admitted I was a member of MS-13, that is not sufficient under most criteria to certify you and put you into the database as a member of MS-13 even though you told me you were a member of MS-13,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said on FOX 5 News Morning.
McCarthy added, “We need a new statute to make it easier for us to target the leadership in these gangs.”
McCarthy pointed out Montgomery County has jumped from less than one gang-related homicide to 18 in the last two years. Yet prosecutors said their hands are tied when it comes to convicting gang members thanks to complicated criteria.
For police in Montgomery County for example, a validated gang member is when a person meets two or more of the criteria listed below:
- Reliable sources confirms person’s gang affiliation
- Source of unproven reliability confirms person’s gang affiliation
- Arrested with gang members
- Associates with gang members
- Gang tattoos
- Gang attire
- Uses, possesses or displays hand signs, symbols, logos, graffiti documents, photos, social media
However, for prosecutors, much more is needed to successfully prosecute a crime as being gang-related and McCarthy said the criteria are not uniform.
Luis Cardona, an administrator for Montgomery County's Positive Youth Development who was once a former gang member, insists rehabilitation is the solution.
“I have been doing this for 25 years now and obviously I have my previous personal street experience,” Cardona said. “It's all rooted in the weakness or the fragility that occurs in the home. Not blaming the parents per se, but when you have these complexities going on at home and when as a society, as a community or even systematically, we are not really working together to help strengthen families. The end result is that we see more young people gravitate to gangs.
“We need to be able to provide them with a better deal and obviously it starts at home, and what we can do to make sure young people are nurtured, they are loved, they feel acknowledged, accepted both for their strengths and weaknesses, for their shortcomings as well as their blessings, and figure out a way to support that.”
Cardona said the focus should be on strengthening families over punishment. Even so, the McCarthy wants laws changed to help prosecute gang leaders for ordering crimes, even if the leader himself does not commit the crime.
Even police said the laws are vague after an arrest is made.
“It can be frustrating, but that is why we rely on our partnerships with our local prosecutors, our federal partners and especially our residents who provide us information where we can learn more details and bring a stronger case,” said Montgomery County Police Capt. Paul Starks. “Sometimes some of those guidelines and laws are vaguely written and that leads to multiple or wide interpretation of those laws.”
What is the solution? According to officials in Montgomery County, new federal and state statutes targeting gang leadership, more resources and tools to track gangs on social media would help.
Also, police said families, churches and schools working together to identify gang activity can also help stop it in its tracks.