Shaneka Penix of Baltimore was caught selling crack cocaine last year, her first serious infraction. But because of her affiliation with a drug gang called Tree Top Piru Bloods, she was convicted of conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act, or RICO. At 23, Penix, the mother of a 3-year-old girl, was facing a minimum mandatory prison sentence of 10 years, says the Baltimore Sun. “When you’re convicted under RICO, the sentences are a lot longer than they are for the base offenses,” said Frank Razzano, an adjunct law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and an editor of a RICO law journal.
That is among the reasons prosecutors like it. The law was enacted nearly 40 years ago to take down traditional, Godfather-style Mafia members, though it is rarely used for that anymore. It has become a widely used tool against more contemporary mobsters, the drug gangs terrorizing U.S. cities. Penix was one of 28 defendants listed on an indictment; 26 of them are charged with racketeering. Four people, including Penix, have pleaded guilty in the case so far. Judge William Quarles said the length of Penix’ term “will in fact create an injustice,” he said. He sentenced her to 120 months anyway. “I am bound by the law,” he said. U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said the sentence reflected the woman’s crimes. “The reason why we prosecuted her was not just because she distributed the crack cocaine but because of the evidence that she was an active member of the racketeering enterprise. In fact, she admitted that,” he said.