The U.S. Attorney's Perspective On Cleveland Gangs

Steven Dettelbach (
Steven Dettelbach (
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Last month ideastream reported on gangs in Cleveland, with special attention on the so-called Heartless Felons which have suffered high-profile indictments this year. Ideastream's Tony Ganzer continues our look at gangs today in a conversation with Steven Dettelbach, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. Ganzer began by asking if we need to distinguish between gangs, and just a "group of fellas" in a neighborhood.

DETTELBACH: “Well I guess it depends on the fellas, and depends on the crime. What we’re looking at are people who are violent. We’re looking to try and be smart about who we prosecute, and who we investigate, so that we’re picking out the people, especially at the federal level, who have the greatest propensity for violence, the greatest history of violence, and who are really contributing to a lack of public safety in a particular neighborhood.”

GANZER: “One of the most present gangs, I guess in recent memory here in Northeast Ohio, has been these so-called Heartless Felons. What does it take for a group like that to get on your radar? Is it the severity of their business, or something else?”

DETTELBACH: “You know the Heartless Felons is an interesting example of how a gang forms. So these are people who were either in the youth penal system, or the adult penal system, who got to know each other and pledged allegiance to the Heartless Felons while in jail for doing something wrong. Then, over time, it became a situation where even after they got out of jail and came back to their communities, they would continue their affiliation not to the gang they used to be in, or the group they used to be in, but to the Heartless Felons. That’s a new thing, that the Heartless Felons have also stayed together after the people got out of prison and came back to their communities.”

GANZER: “I want you to listen now to something from Richard Starr, he’s a former gang member in Cleveland. He’s now a mentor for the Boys and Girls club, here’s what he said:”

STARR: “When you think about it the Heartless Felons started in jail, how is it now the gang is being run in the city and not in jail? That’s an interesting question. You start a gang in jail, now you look up and you have kids who have never been in jail saying they’re HF, they’re a Heartless Felon. 13-year-old boys, never did any juvi time, never did anything, but guess what they’re putting it in social media, on their bios. But do they really know? No.”

DETTELBACH: “I think that we have to have a multi-pronged, all-of-the-above approach to dealing with this problem. So that means—and I think that comment illustrates correctly—that what that means is we can have enforcement and lock up violent people, but that can’t be all that we do. We need to make sure that we’re providing alternatives for these young people who may not know what it means to join a gang, what that really entails, but might not have other options.”

GANZER: “How serious a piece in all of this, do you think, is reform of how we approach this issue from the justice system?”

DETTELBACH: “We need to be not just tougher on crime, but we need to be—and I think the Attorney General has talked about this—is smarter on crime. Really the devil’s in the details on this. You can’t just say ‘we need to lock everybody up for a longer period of time’, and you can’t just say ‘we need to let everybody out of prison.’ You need to be smart about how you are targeting those enforcement efforts, and then you need to provide prevention efforts, and you need to help with re-entry.”

GANZER: “Are we seeing a reorientation that is necessary to accomplish that?”

DETTELBACH: “I think we’re seeing an effort by a lot of good people to do a lot of things. I think everybody you talk to in our community would tell you they wish that it was going faster, and they wish we were able to do more. There’s not enough money going to these efforts, there’s not enough attention going to these efforts from the community as a whole. But there are a lot of really good people who are working 24/7 to enforce the law, to go out there and provide avenues for kids to avoid getting involved in these gangs, and who are trying to make sure that if somebody is coming back into the community from prison, and they want to do the right thing, that they have the choice to do the right thing, and they aren’t just funneled back into the revolving door cycle of our prison system.”

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