Illinois lawmaker plans overhaul of street-gangs bill

Thursday, February 18, 1999

An Illinois lawmaker sponsoring a bill that would make gang members ineligible for state aid says he plans to rework the measure so it won't punish individuals who haven't been convicted of a crime or who have renounced their gang membership.

The Illinois Streetgang Terrorism Omnibus Act, as the current bill is known, is supposed to protect citizens from the “clear and present danger” of gang activity, says bill sponsor Rep. Louis Lang, D-Skokie.

As currently written, the measure would forbid gang members from being eligible for any state public aid, residence in a housing-authority project and education grants or scholarships paid in whole or in part with state money.

“The idea seems to make sense and would be an appropriate use of state tax dollars,” Lang said. “Why should law-abiding students be cheated out of their education by those who break the law?”

Lang introduced the bill last month before the Illinois General Assembly. But he declined to push it after he realized the bill would punish reported gang members who had never been convicted of a crime, he said. Such a situation would discourage those people trying to distance themselves from gangs.

“I recognized that there would be those who would be concerned about some being found 'guilty by association,'” Lang said. “It's very important to create a law that works. If it's too vague, if it's too hard to pin down exactly what constitutes a gang member, then you have a constitutional problem.”

Lang says he plans to rework the bill to include a better definition of “gang” and to limit the bill's scope to those who have been convicted of gang-related activity.

Some guidance may come from the U.S. Supreme Court, which is currently deliberating Chicago v. Jesus Morales, a case involving the constitutionality of a Chicago anti-gang ordinance.

That ordinance, a tool used by Chicago police to arrest more than 45,000 people in the four years it was in effect, allowed police to tell loitering gang members and others to keep moving or risk arrest.

Opponents of the law — which was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1997 — say such ordinances are too broad because they don't specify what constitutes gang-related activity.

Lang says he hopes that court case and laws in other states will help him draft a fairer, stronger bill.

“There is no good definition of what a gang member is,” Lang said. “What one person thinks is a gang may not be the type of gang we're talking about. I want to make sure (the bill) reads properly. I don't want to take legal benefits away from people who deserve them.”