Chicago arrest
Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

I saw a headline the other day in which Mark Kirk proposed to arrest literally every single Gangster Disciple in Chicago. That's an estimated 18,000 people, the equivalent of arresting every man, woman, and child in East Garfield Park or Kenwood. An entire Chicago community's worth of people. It's putting it mildly to say this idea is not entirely thought-out:

"My top priority is to arrest the Gangster Disciple gang, which is 18,000 people. I would like to a mass pickup of them and put them all in the Thomson Correctional Facility," says Kirk. "I will be proposing this to the assembled federal law enforcement: ATF, DEA and FBI."

Thomson has 1,600 cells. So at the tight fit of ten prisoners to a cell…you're still gonna need a bigger jail. (Cook County Jail holds about 10,000 people, but it's almost full.)

Maybe this is what we could do with all the closed schools.

Anyway, those are mere logistical details. This is America, and if we're good at anything, it's mass incarceration.

Less flexible are the constitutional issues involved in arresting people for what amounts to free association. The Gangster Disciples are not the well organized, RICO-friendly gang of yore, but splintered, disorganized factions that kids join for a multitude of reasons, including not getting hurt or killed.

As Ben Calhoun put it in This American Life's episode on Harper High:

Of course, to an adult, this is upside down world logic, that the one thing that could have helped them and maybe saved Terrance's life was being recruited and trained by a gang, that the only adults who could have helped them were gang members. And the more Boogie said stuff like this, how they inherited this war, the more upset Mr. Owens got.

This raises the problem of who a Gangster Disciple really even is. 18,000 is a ballpark estimate, and the ballpark is pretty damn big, as Eric Zorn points out:

Third, though 18,000 members is a decent ballpark estimate for the Gangster Disciples in the Chicago area—the Chicago Crime Commission puts the number at somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000—the organization, such as it is, is so splintered as to make that number difficult to interpret. The commission estimates there are 250 subgroups, many of them bitter rivals, under the Gangster Disciple umbrella.

For instance, police say the suspects in Hadiya's killing were members of the SUWU faction of the Gangster Disciples who were targeting members of the 4-6 Terror faction.

But it's not exactly like you can arrest them for just being Gangster Disciples, anyway. What would Kirk bust these gang members on? As he puts it: "Drug dealing…and murdering people, which is what they do." Picture Law & Order's Jack McCoy asking what charges there are to hold the prisoner—18,000 times. Or 30,000, if we're being safe.

Still, these are details. We can at least assume, for the sake of argument, that Kirk could brainstorm ways of legitimately arresting 18,000 people. As of 2011, there were 44,000 active criminal warrants in Cook County; presumably some of them are Gangster Disciples. Warrant sweeps are pretty common mass-arrest tactics. I don't recommend "investigative alerts," though, not unless you want a crapload of wrongful-arrest lawsuits. Which is also sort of a danger when you're arresting 18,000 people at once. The federal class-action lawsuit filed by 900 people arrested during the Chicago Iraq War protest cost the city $12 million.

A more interesting question is whether it would work even if it went off without a hitch. Zorn at least gives Kirk credit "for advancing the idea that we need a new, stronger approach to combat gang violence, and for reminding us how huge the problem truly is." But it kind of goes against the current thinking on combating violent crime, based on the tremendous success New York City has had over the past couple decades. As Franklin Zimring writes:

Two other important lessons are that reducing crime does not require reducing the use of drugs or sending massive numbers of people to jail. Incidentally, the difference between New York’s incarceration trends and those of the rest of the nation—and the money that the city and state governments avoided pouring into the correctional business—has more than paid for the city’s expanded police force.

This is a somewhat limited reading of what happened. New York City did send lots of people to jail, but on minor charges for very brief periods as much as major charges:

But New York diverged from the national trend in the early 1990s, when it began expanding its police force and introduced a computerized system to track crimes and complaints. Officers also aggressively enforced laws against guns, illegal drugs, and petty crimes, like turnstile jumping in the subways. Arrests for misdemeanors increased sharply.

Yet serious crime went down. So though more people were being locked up for brief periods—including many who were unable to make bail and were awaiting trial—the local jail population was shrinking and fewer city residents were serving time in state prisons.

“Even with more people coming into the system, the overall bed count was declining because people weren’t staying as long,” Dr. Jacobson, who was correction commissioner from 1995 to 1998, recalled.

Rather than being "tough" on crime, the NYPD was diligent and active on it, though their aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics run counter to the CPD's desire to increase trust in the police. And, importantly, the NYPD added more police.

It's not a perfect comparison. Chicago is notorious for having a much more entrenched gang problem than New York (or really any other major city save Los Angeles). But those gangs are different now: disorganized crime more than organized crime. Kirk's plan to combat it would be showy, and likely very, very expensive. If he can make the feds rain money to fight crime, a better application might be giving the CPD resources—which it's blowing through at a considerable rate this year—to apply the consistent pressure that seemed to work in New York, rather than the swift blow he wants.