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Paroled Gansters Cant Go Home*

Paroled gangsters find they can't go home again

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

CHICAGO — Shawn Betts apparently didn't realize it, but a police surveillance team had a video camera pointed at him the moment he stepped out of a state prison here last October.

Betts, a leader of a violent gang known as the 4 Corner Hustlers, was being watched because he had just signed an unusual parole agreement to secure his release after serving six years of a 12-year sentence for kidnapping: He promised not to return to the West Side turf controlled by his gang, with the understanding that police would be watching to make sure he didn't. Less than six hours after he left prison and ducked into a van with friends, Betts was back in custody.

That was because the surveillance team saw the 38-year-old felon make a brief detour into Indiana. The detour violated a separate part of Betts' parole — a violation that probably would have gone unnoticed if Betts hadn't agreed to the restrictions that led police to follow him.

The episode was a benchmark in a bold effort by Chicago to turn back the type of gang violence that has driven up violent crime rates here and elsewhere in recent years. During the past two years, Betts and four other gang figures have given up their rights to return to their home "turf" under one of the nation's most provocative strategies aimed at disrupting gang activity.


In a city where police say gangs typically are involved in about half the homicides each year, the new restrictions on parole coincided with a 25% decline in slayings last year.

Homicides have continued to decline this year in Chicago, although not as dramatically: As of July 29 there had been 258, five fewer than at the same time in 2004, the Chicago Police Department says

Thomas Epach Jr., executive assistant to police Superintendent Philip Crane, says he can't be certain how much of the decline should be attributed to parole restrictions or to other anti-gang initiatives launched in troubled areas.

But Epach says the restrictions on even a small number of gang leaders — and the police surveillance attached to such agreements — have given authorities a better view of the activities of hundreds of key players among Chicago's estimated 68,000 gang members.

Crane says the restrictions also have allowed police to prevent violence that often has occurred after a gang leader is released from prison and he tries to re-establish his presence.

As a result, Epach says, police are working with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which oversees parole, to have more parolees agree to restrictions on their movements.

"It's hard to say which snowflake causes the avalanche," Epach says. "Our aim is simple. We're trying everything to take the catalysts for violence out of the equation."

Legality of deals questioned

The Chicago policy has raised a range of legal and law enforcement concerns, however.

Defense lawyers and civil rights advocates complain that parole restrictions on gang leaders violate the convicts' right to associate with their families and friends. They say the restrictions can make it particularly difficult for the felons to find work, which usually is another requirement of parole.

"The whole thing is 100% unconstitutional," says Sam Adam, a lawyer for Darren Jones, 34, a gang leader who accepted a non-negotiable release offer from the Illinois review board.

Jones agreed to stay away from his home turf on Chicago's West Side when he was freed from prison in January.

Adam says Jones — who wound up violating the agreement and is back in prison, serving the remaining 13 years of his original 25-year sentence for drug trafficking — had three children who lived in the area he was banned from visiting.


"How can you tell a man he can't go home and visit his kids?" Adam asks.

Chicago's policy hasn't been challenged in court, but Adam says he would have done so if Jones could have afforded it.

"I wish Darren had asked us to go forward," Adam says. "We had everything all lined up. We were ready to go."

Jorge Montes, chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, says the territorial restrictions are reserved for a small number of gang leaders who authorities suspect could pose a threat to public safety.

"I don't know if there is any direct correlation between this program and declining crime," Montes says. "But it makes perfect sense that inmates who are identified as kingpins should be watched very, very closely."

Still, Montes says it is "only a matter of time" before the policy is challenged in court.

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Chicago, says a parolee's constitutional right to free association isn't all the policy jeopardizes.

"If you are cutting these people off from family, friends and opportunities for work, you might be setting them up for failure," he says.

Chicago police play down such concerns.

They say the restrictions hinder only a gang leader's ability to return to illegal activity.

In Jones' case, Epach says, police feared that the mandatory release would set off a violent turf battle if Jones sought to re-establish himself in the hierarchy of a gang known as the Traveling Vice Lords.

For roughly three months after his release from prison, police say, they watched Jones reconnect with old business partners as he ventured in and out of the prohibited territory.

They arrested him on alleged parole violations in March, soon after Jones — apparently concerned about police surveillance — bought a $300 radio frequency detector that can be used to check for bugging devices.

"If you're trying to get your life back together," Epach says, "you aren't going out to buy spy paraphernalia."

Chicago suburb wary

Chicago authorities are encouraged by the apparent success of the program, but their counterparts in nearby cities worry that the tactic will encourage released gang members to head to the suburbs.

Garnett Watson, police chief of neighboring Gary, Ind., says his city routinely feels the impact of anti-gang efforts in Chicago. It's too early to determine whether Chicago's parole initiative has triggered a significant migration of gang members to the city's Indiana suburbs, but Watson expects it.

"When Chicago sneezes, we catch a cold," Watson says.

Larry Ford, an assistant director with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, says years of battles involving urban police agencies and gangs already have driven some criminal groups to operate in the suburbs. "They are finding less competition for turf and less (police) scrutiny," Ford says.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 730,000 gang members associated with more than 21,000 groups, according to the National Youth Gang Center, an arm of the Justice Department.

The numbers have remained stable in recent years despite a decade-long decline in crime. But the percentage of cities reporting that gang problems were "getting worse" rose from 25% in 1999 to 37% in 2003, the center says.

During the same period, gang-related homicides increased about 50%, according to the most recent report by a coalition of urban police chiefs and prosecutors known as Fight Crime Invest in Kids.

Chicago's move against gang leaders comes as several cities — notably Los Angeles, San Antonio and El Paso — are using another tactic aimed at disrupting gangs: obtaining court orders to ban known gangsters from operating in designated sections of those cities.

Instead of targeting individual gang leaders, the cities are identifying troubled neighborhoods and enforcing strict rules of conduct in those areas that are aimed at making it more difficult for gang members to deal drugs or take part in other illegal activities.

For years, Los Angeles has sought court orders to limit the activities and movements of many of the city's estimated 40,000 gang members. The court orders do not prohibit certain known gang members from being in the designated areas, but the members are banned from associating with each other.

In a March 10 order aimed at combating Los Angeles' Grape Street Crips, at least 16 known gang members were prohibited from associating with other members, intimidating people in the neighborhood or acting as lookouts "by whistling, yelling or otherwise signaling" colleagues involved in drug trafficking or other illegal activity.

During the past four years, the city has ramped up its campaign dramatically, designating 16 new restricted zones, an increase of 243%. The strategy's effect on the crime rate is unclear, but the designation of every "safety zone" has been followed by a decline in violent crime of at least 6% in each area, says Jonathan Diamond, spokesman for City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.

During his unsuccessful bid for re-election this year, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn proposed designating the entire city — nearly 500 square miles — as a court-ordered safety zone. The plan remains under review by Delgadillo's office, but it has drawn criticism from legal analysts such as former Los Angeles district attorney Ira Reiner, who told the Los Angeles Times that it was "campaign talk and nothing else."

Safety zones expanded

The use of court orders in California was upheld in a 1997 ruling by the state Supreme Court in a case that involved an anti-gang effort in San Jose.

Courts have not always backed anti-gang strategies, however. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court scuttled a broad anti-loitering ordinance in Chicago that was aimed at sweeping gang members from the streets. Under that provision, opposed by the ACLU, police were able to make arrests if suspected gang members did not follow a police warning to move.

Until it was overturned, the anti-loitering ordinance appeared to give law enforcement a less-demanding alternative to court orders, which typically require police to carefully plot crimes committed in the designated zones and name gang members suspected in them.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, however, the use of court orders to establish "safety zones" has expanded. El Paso got its first court order in 2003. It established the troubled Downtown area known as the "Segundo Barrio" as a target to rid the neighborhood of the Barrio Azteca gang.

The order identified 35 members of the gang by name and prohibited them from associating with each other in the zone. The order also established a curfew that made any of the members subject to arrest if they were found in the zone from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

El Paso police Sgt. Marylou Carrillo says that from April 2003, when the order took effect, to January 2005, the strategy contributed to a 33% decline in business burglaries, a 20% drop in robberies and a 12% decline in overall crime in the Downtown area. There also have been no homicides in the zone since the court action.

Carrillo says police are moving to extend the order through 2006.

"These residents for years have been terrorized," County Attorney Jose Rodriguez says. "Nobody in this town should live in fear."

Epach says the same principle applies in Chicago. The former prosecutor describes the territorial restrictions on released prisoners as part of a "big combo platter that appears to be working now" in reducing gang activity.

"We figure that watching and putting restrictions on one gang leader is the equivalent of watching 200 gang members," he says. "These people are at the top of the food chain. We can put a kind of embargo on violations by keeping the gang leaders unsettled."

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