Use RICO Law on Deadly Street Gangs

Use RICO Law on Deadly Street Gangs
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The crime was heartbreaking, even for a city used to brutal crimes. The victim was a 9-year-old child, lured into a vacant alley and killed. It wasn’t an accident, a sexual assault, or another death from stray bullets. Young Tyshawn Lee was deliberately murdered by one gang to send a message to its rival, whose members allegedly include the victim’s father. “Don’t keep messing with us” was their message, scrawled metaphorically in this child’s blood. “You’ve been killing our members, and, if you don’t stop, we’ll slaughter your families.” To send that message, they executed an innocent child. That’s what police say. Community members agree.

Among morally disgusting acts, this one deserves a special place in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell, where Satan watches over the damned, forever frozen in ice.

We should do something here on earth, too. Crimes like this are more than individual acts of depravity. They are the products of organized criminal enterprises. The U.S. government has laws specifically designed to deal with them. The most important is RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. When it was passed in 1970, the goal was to hold senior Mafiosi responsible for their underlings’ crimes. The Mafia is still around, but today’s criminal gangs have also morphed into street-level drug operations and cross-border smugglers. RICO laws are a powerful tool to smash them, jail their members, and seize their assets.

When the new head of Chicago’s FBI office arrived a few months ago, he was asked about investigating local crime and corruption. He said, with understatement, that Chicago was a “target-rich environment.” Well, here’s a rich target to start on. The FBI and U.S. attorney should immediately begin RICO investigations of the Chicago South Side gangs whose deadly rivalry ensnared Tyshawn Lee and ended his brief life. He was not only killed by the gangster who pulled the trigger, he was killed by the gang itself, operating as a criminal enterprise. Indirectly, he was killed by the rival gang, locked in a deadly battle to control the streets and the lucrative drug trade.

It is the government’s responsibility to take on these gangs, and it is painfully obvious Chicago has failed. The first responsibility of any government—city, state, and federal—is to provide a safe, orderly environment for its citizens to go about their lives, to live in peace. That is never an easy task, and it is nearly impossible in neighborhoods where 80 percent of children are born to single mothers, public education is terrible, the basic institutions of civil society have disintegrated, businesses have fled (for their own safety and for better workers), and few men and women enter adulthood with marketable skills. Five decades after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, things are worse for the very people it was meant to help. The intentions were noble and the expenditures vast (over $20 trillion in current dollars, by some estimates), but good intentions do not equal good policy.

More police would surely help, especially if they were assigned to tough neighborhoods. But Chicago, like most cities, simply cannot afford them. Although it just hiked taxes by a record amount, the money will go mainly to underfunded pensions. To put it differently, Chicago already has enough police on the payroll; it’s just that most of them are retired. The fiscal burden of their pensions, and those of firefighters and teachers, are crushing the city.

Credit for this mess goes to the previous mayor, Richard M. Daley, and a supine City Council. They tried to keep current expenses down by paying union workers a little less salary and promising them more generous retirement checks. Then, surprise, the politicians spent the money saved instead of putting it into retirement accounts. Let’s win the next election, they thought, and let some future saps deal with the problems.

The future is here, and those saps are today’s voters. They are the victims, too, of lousy public services, too many potholes, and too few police. That is why the Daley family, which dominated Chicago for the better part of six decades, is seldom mentioned in polite company. They left a stench. The State of Illinois followed the same road to perdition, giving lucrative contracts to friends, pocketing their donations, and winning the next election. The current mayor and governor (Democrat Rahm Emanuel and Republican Bruce Rauner) inherited the problems and are moving aggressively to deal with them. But they are holding weak hands and facing the wrath of public-sector unions.

There is no silver shield to stop these bullets. The problems are too deeply ingrained in broken communities and broken governments. But the answers should begin by refocusing government on true priorities. That means providing basic social order, consistent with our constitutional rights. The task is urgent, and it needs support from all levels of government. We don’t have that now. Instead, we have city, state and federal governments that cannot, or will not, stop repeat felons from strolling the wharves of San Francisco and killing innocents. They cannot, or will not, stop street gangs from carrying out deadly vendettas on the streets of Chicago. There is no single solution, but smashing street gangs is a good place to start. Street gangs are criminal enterprises, and they ought to be treated that way. RICO is a powerful tool to do that. It’s time to pull it out of the tool shed and rev up the motor.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at and can be reached at

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