How the new criminal justice law may force Utah’s federal prosecutors to change their strategy for combating gangs

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber is joined by Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires and other officers as they announce the indictment of a man charged with distribution of spice and possession of a fire arm during a press event at the U.S. Attorney's office on Monday, March 12, 2018.

Why go after a gang member when you can obliterate the entire gang? That had been Utah’s strategy since federal prosecutors in 2002 took on the King Mafia Disciples, a violent street gang organized by teens in juvenile detention.

Then, a year later, the prison gang Soldiers of Aryan Culture was also prosecuted in Utah under the federal RICO Act, which stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations.

In 2006, leaders of the Tiny Oriental Posse were taken down, and most recently, prosecutors targeted the Tongan Crip Gang with racketeering charges in 2010.

But it’s been eight years since federal prosecutors challenged a Utah gang under RICO, which is most famously used to target mafia bosses.

U.S. attorney for Utah John Huber says this shift is intentional.

His office in recent years has moved away from RICO cases, which are time consuming and costly, in favor of charging individual members with drug or weapon crimes and then seeking hefty federal sentences.

And the tactic hasn’t been limited to just gang takedowns. Huber’s office has also put an emphasis on pushing crimes that normally would be prosecuted in Utah state courts into the federal system, where the penalties are often more harsh and those convicted serve their sentences in prisons scattered throughout the nation, since Utah doesn’t have a federal lockup.

This approach, however, will likely be affected by the First Step Act — sweeping legislation championed by Utah Sen. Mike Lee that was signed into law this week. The First Step Act overhauls the federal sentencing system to lower mandatory minimums sentences for drug crimes, expand job training and boost early-release opportunities.

Huber’s office declined to say how the First Step Act may impact their strategy, since it runs counter to their desire to pursue the longest sentences possible.

But the U.S. attorney has said he believes their recent efforts have contributed to a reduction in violent crime in the state. It dropped 8 percent in 2017 compared with the previous year, though Utah had seen a double-digit increases in violent crime in the years before that.

“We’re very proud of the progress we think we’ve made statewide,” he said in a recent interview. “We put a lot of muscle into this.”

‘We weren’t nimble’

The shift away from RICO cases began as Huber became Utah’s top federal prosecutor in 2015, just as attorneys were wrapping up their last cases against members of the Tongan Crip Gang.

It’s an expensive endeavor to use RICO to take down gang leaders, Huber said. Investigators can spend years building a case, trying to figure out who is calling the shots and gathering enough evidence to prove that the suspects are committing crimes to benefit their gang, a requirement of such charges.

Then, once the investigation is over, it can take a few more years in the courtroom to net convictions. While they got results, Huber said prosecutors began to question whether the time and effort was worth it.

“In a RICO case, you try to take out the leadership,” Huber said. “The theory is that will disorganize the gang and they won’t be effective in violent crime like they had been. Yes, we were successful in taking out leadership, but we weren’t nimble in being able to turn to the next threat.”

So they shifted strategies. Now, instead of trying to map out the inner workings of a gang, investigators find those who are most active in selling drugs or are using dangerous weapons, crimes with long federal minimum mandatory sentences. And with no federal prison facility in Utah, that means the gang members are not all being sent to the same place to serve their time.

“We’re taking out people who we have determined are the most active,” Huber said. “We are able to take them out and incapacitate the gang and disorganize the gang.”

They are also getting convictions more quickly.

One recent operation targeted the GlenMob gang, so called because of its affiliation with the Glendale neighborhood in west Salt Lake City. A dozen people were charged in May with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, a federal complaint that carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life behind bars.

The investigation included listening to phone calls, setting up cameras to watch the alleged conspirators and initiating controlled drug buys. Federal prosecutors say their efforts netted the seizure of at least 15 firearms, 15 pounds of meth, a half-pound of heroin, several pounds of marijuana and $36,000.

Prosecutors believe the people charged include the leaders of GlenMob’s drug trafficking operation, several main distributors and a handful a “sub-distributors,” who buy large quantities from main distributors to sell. Their court cases are all pending, except for one defendant who agreed to plead guilty and be sentenced to five years in federal prison.

A ‘revolving door’

Beyond targeting specific gangs, Huber’s office has also emphasized taking more cases from local prosecutors into the federal court system. It’s a tactic implemented statewide, but there’s been a particular focus on Ogden, deemed a Project Safe Neighborhood target area.

In October, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revived the Project Safe Neighborhoods program, a George W. Bush-era strategy that had faded in recent years.

For Ogden, this means an influx of funding and federal resources for a targeted area of the city where local leaders say most of the violent crimes occurs. All cases involving violent offenders are now screened for the possibility to prosecute them in federal court instead of the state system.

“The positive thing we can offer is we slow down that revolving door,” Huber said. “When they go to prison for a number of years, that gives us reprieve for our residents in our community.”

Deputy Weber County Attorney Branden Miles said that, so far, his office has looked at 61 cases, with 28 now filed in federal court.

He said it’s too soon to tell whether their efforts have decreased crime in Ogden — most of the cases they’ve brought to the federal system are pending or criminals have just begun to serve their prison sentences.

‘Ridiculously long’ sentences

Huber said they are trying to target the “worst offenders” with these aggressive prosecuting strategies.

But critics warn that this approach could also scoop up more minor criminals who should not be serving such harsh sentences.

Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney for Utah who is now in private practice, said success shouldn’t be measured just by how many people can be carted off to federal prison for years, if not decades.

“Over-incarcerating is not working,” he said. “Sometimes we get to the point where we forget to focus on the fact that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”

Take the case of Weldon Angelos, Tolman said. He was a Utah music producer sentenced to a mandatory 55 years in federal prison for selling marijuana to a police informant three times — once with a gun.

The first-time offender served 13 years behind bars before he was freed in 2016. Angelos now works advocating for criminal justice reform, and his case inspired Lee, the senator, to push for the First Step Act.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Weldon Angelos talks about his release from prison at his sitters house in Sandy, Friday, June 3, 2016. Angelos was released from prison on Tuesday.

Angelos said in a recent interview that using the federal system for drug and weapons prosecutions is inherently unfair because of how different the punishments can be. In his case, for instance, someone with similar convictions in state court likely would have received just a few months behind bars.

“It creates massive sentencing disparities,” he said. “How is it OK for people who are similarly situated to me, who did the exact things I did and get six months, and someone like me get 55 years? There’s no difference between the offender and the conduct.”

Angelos said the current federal prison system offers little incentive to participate in rehabilitative programs — something Tolman, Angelos and others campaigned to change through the First Step Act.

The legislation, which had been mired in a political fight for years, was passed by both the Senate and the House this week was signed by President Donald Trump on Friday.

And as this law rolls out, it could force Huber to come up with yet another strategy to target Utah’s street gangs.