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Senator wants entire Chicago gang arrested. Would that work?

Chicago's Gangster Disciples have more than 18,000 members, and Sen. Mark Kirk wants them all in jail to curb gun violence. But critics say mass incarceration isn't the answer.

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The Chicago Police gang enforcement unit stops a car with four suspected gang members and arrests one of them on a warrant in this 2012 photo. Sen. Mark Kirk wants to round up all the members of the Gangster Disciples.

Robert Ray/AP/File

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Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk (R) is recommending that the next US attorney in Chicago step up federal efforts to combat street gang violence through mass arrests of the Gangster Disciples, the prevailing criminal outfit operating on Chicago streets.

Senator Kirk said he wants to see all 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples prosecuted in federal court and said he believes “it’s completely within the capability of the United States government to crush a major urban gang.” He said the effort will require $30 million in federal funding but is necessary to stop the killing of innocent bystanders like Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago girl who was killed by Gangster Disciples in January a week after after performing in a marching band at President Obama's inauguration.

But others question the wisdom of Kirk's proposal, with one member of Congress calling it an “upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about.”

Estimates vary for how big the Gangster Disciples are in Chicago. The largest estimate is 30,000, according to the Chicago Crime Commission. But the gang, which dates to the 1960s, was largely dismantled in 1997 when federal prosecutors jailed more than 40 leaders in a case involving extortion and drug trafficking.

Before that, the organization included a musical promotion company, a political-action committee, and an interstate drug and gun distribution network. Today, the Gangster Disciples are no longer single criminal enterprise but are represented through smaller, neighborhood factions that are largely leaderless and disconnected from one another.

“They’re almost like a brand.... If you call yourself a Disciple, you’ve got your claim to some past. There’s a history there that’s really important and empowering,” says Andrew Papachristos, a sociology professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., who studies gangs and social networks.

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