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by Peter Moskos

November 1, 2007

Gang Member Is Convicted Under Terror Law

Today’s New York Times has an article about a gang member being convicted under anti-terrorism laws. The only thing that surprises me is the surprise. The article states: “Other states have used their terrorism statutes, which were seen as largely ceremonial when they were introduced because major terrorism cases were likely to be prosecuted by the federal government.”

There’s a simple rule here: police and prosecutors will use any tool they can. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Police and prosecutors wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t use all the tools at their disposal.

But law-makers need to consider that when they pass ceremonial feel-good anti-terrorism laws, these laws have real-world implications. When certain acts or motivations are criminalized, the effects of laws will always extend beyond the specific target group intended.

Maybe terror laws should be used against gang members. Most Americans have much more to fear from local criminals than from international terrorism. As one Baltimorean said a while back, “Osama Bin Laden don’t live on Caroline Street!”

But something about using laws in ways they weren’t intended bothers me. Especially because so much of this always comes down to the War on Drugs. RICO laws, intended for large-scale organized crime, are now used against low-level drug laws. Terrorism laws will be, too. Assault and violence have always been illegal. I don’t think the answer to our nation’s problems is simply incarcerating more people for even longer terms.

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