CHICAGO — An Illinois law giving local authorities the power to go after street gangs as criminal organizations took effect Monday, a move prosecutors and police said bolsters efforts at reducing crime in the nation’s third largest city.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Street Gang RICO Act into law Monday. The legislation is modeled after the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which provides stiff penalties for illegal acts performed as part of a criminal enterprise like the Mafia.
The Illinois law lists dozens of crimes, including murder for hire, kidnapping and sex trafficking, and allows prosecutors to connect single crimes to the larger group. It also stiffens penalties.
The goal is to dismantle gangs.
“We want to go after these mobsters and gangsters who are killing people and hurting the public safety of our state,’’ Quinn said.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez pushed the measure, with support from Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
McCarthy said 75 to 80 percent of the shootings and homicides in Chicago are gang-related and estimated that the city has 100,000 gang members.
His comments followed another uptick in city violence; during the weekend eight people were killed and at least 40 wounded in shootings citywide. This year, Chicago reported 203 homicides through late May, a 51 percent increase from the same time period last year when it was 134 homicides.
Neither Alvarez nor McCarthy could say how long it would take for the first case to be prosecuted under the new law. Alvarez said her office had created a new unit to handle the cases and will train police on how to spot them.
“Instead of looking at the individual acts of one or two gang members, we are going to be looking at the entire enterprise ... somehow really make a dent into the gang problems and get to the guys who are calling the shots,’’ she said. “They are the ones that are usually nowhere to be found. We may convict the soldier but we never get the general.’’
More than two dozen states have their own version of anti-racketeering laws.
The Illinois law takes effect immediately and expires in five years. Lawmakers say that’s when they’ll study how it’s been working, according to state Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat who sponsored the bill.
However, opponents argue the law gives Illinois’ 102 county state attorneys too much power and leaves potential for abuse.
“The fear is that politically elected people can use it politically,’’ said state Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, who voted present on the bill. He also said low-level gang members could get swept up in investigations and charged with harsher crimes.
Federal prosecutors in Chicago have used RICO in high-profile cases involving mobsters.
Illinois has flirted with getting its own RICO law before. But a wide-ranging attempt three years ago, which also focused on political corruption, did not get far with lawmakers.
The new law applies only to gangs, explicitly excluding racketeering investigations of state government and unions.
The Chicago Crime Commission, a nonprofit organization that studies city crime, applauded the law and said it was long overdue. Arthur Bilek, the commission’s executive vice president, said there had been little evidence in other states of abuse of power on the part of prosecutors.
“The dangers are insignificant compared to the good that bill can bring by finally beginning to put away these vicious violent drug gangs that are really the new mafia of the United States,’’ he said.
The bill is HB1907.