Senate Judiciary Committee weighs proposed Kansas RICO law

Kansas gang leaders will face tougher prison sentences if a proposed anti-racketeering bill becomes law.

SB 16, which could face a vote as soon as Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would create the Kansas Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act. The statute would resemble the federal RICO law, which was enacted in 1970 to combat the Mafia. Under RICO, police would be able to charge gang members for engaging in a string of criminal activity, rather than for individual crimes.

The law would allow officers to indict criminals for participating in racketeering activity over a certain time period. That would include any act or threat involving murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, extortion, dealing in contraband, counterfeiting and other related crimes. The bill would also amend the definition of “criminal street gang member” in the existing Kansas anti-gang law.

An individual must commit a serious felony before officers could pursue the RICO act.

By targeting documented gang leaders, the new law would cut down on crime, said Wichita Police Lt. Scott Heimerman, who assisted in drafting the revised measure.

“What the RICO bill is designed to do is go after the hierarchy of any criminal street organization,” Heimerman said. “The bottom line is, if the hierarchy’s gone, the rest of the organization ceases to exist.”

A hearing on the bill Tuesday wasn’t the first time it has been discussed in the Legislature. It has passed the Senate but died in the House two years in a row.

Sen. Mike Petersen, R-Wichita, has worked to develop SB 16 since his first term in the Senate. He thinks worry about prison overpopulation may be partly responsible for past hesitation surrounding the bill’s passage.

“There are people concerned about making sure we don’t have wannabe gang members in there,” Petersen said, “We don’t want to just fill up bed space in prisons — we want to go after the leaders of these criminal enterprises.”

The measure has since been updated with stricter restrictions focusing mainly on serious felonies. This time around, Petersen is hopeful about the bill’s chances.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “What we’re excited about is that every time we’ve run this bill through the process, it’s actually come back narrower and a much better bill.”

If the measure passes, Kansas will be one of at least 30 states with a RICO statute.