WASHINGTON — A bill aimed at decreasing gang-related violence passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday despite concerns that it was overly punitive and would disproportionately affect minority youths.
The "Gangbusters" bill, approved 279-144, allows some gang crimes to be tried in federal court, imposes minimum sentences -- ranging from 10 years to life -- on individuals convicted of specific gang-related crimes, allows the death penalty for gang murders and permits more 16- and 17-year-old gang members to be tried as adults.
It also authorizes $388 million over five years for law enforcement efforts to break up violent gangs and creates a statute, similar to the RICO statute used against organized crime, for the prosecution of gang members.
The measure defines three or more individuals who commit two or more gang-related crimes, at least one of them violent, as a "criminal street gang" subject to the bill's penalties.
The bill's provisions, said LAPD spokesman Lt. Paul Vernon, will help police better attack the "gang enterprise" in Los Angeles, which has about 39,000 gang members.
The national concern about gang violence has grown as gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have spread from the Los Angeles area to the East Coast.
"We're talking about machete attacks, witness intimidation, extortion, cold-blooded assassinations, cutting off peoples' fingers, cutting off their arms, cutting off their heads," the bill's author, Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), said on the House floor.
More than 25,000 gangs, comprising 750,000 members, are active across the United States, according to the Justice Department. Most are primarily youth gangs, but some resemble organized crime syndicates, with ties to drug trafficking, human smuggling and production of fraudulent documents.
While supporters lauded the effort to promote public safety, opponents lamented that Congress was focused on punishing, not preventing, gang activity.
"The Latino community -- the country as a whole -- deserves a more complete look at the situation," said Angela Arboleda of the advocacy organization La Raza.
She said the legislation "does absolutely nothing to get at the root causes of the problems, of why young men and women get involved in gangs, and involve themselves in these associations."
The LAPD's Vernon said that the bill did not provide money for intervention programs, which the department believed were vital to cutting off the supply of gang recruits.
"In Los Angeles, when it comes to Hispanic gangs we are talking fourth- and fifth-generation gang members," he said. "We need to break that cycle."
Opponents expressed concern that mandatory minimum sentences undermined state courts' authority and impeded judges' abilities to consider extenuating circumstances.
"We need to let judges be judges," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). "We cannot sit here in the Congress of the United States and take away the power of judges to make decisions."
But the bill's proponents thought that the stricter penalties would suppress gang membership and encourage cooperation with police and prosecutors.
"Common sense says that you're not going to stop violent criminals by giving them a Popsicle and a hug," Forbes said. "You stop them by getting them off the streets."
In the California delegation, Democrats Joe Baca (San Bernardino), Dennis A. Cardoza (Atwater), Jim Costa (Fresno), Jane Harman (Venice), Tom Lantos (San Mateo) and Diane E. Watson (Los Angeles) joined all 20 Republicans in voting for the bill. All other Democrats -- except Juanita Millender-McDonald (Carson), who did not vote -- were opposed.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain. The Senate version, sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), contains funding for community-based intervention and prevention programs, such as those sought by the LAPD's Vernon, but does not include the mandatory minimum sentences.
Times staff writer Richard Winton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.