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Race, clothing, neighborhood — these are some ways police determine gang membership. Such an approach criminalizes innocent people and conduct. Even when individuals are truly gang-affiliated, however, law enforcement’s predominant strategy to control gang activity does not address the root of the problem.

Michael Van Vleet | Gang tags in Hayward, CA (2008)

In response to rising crime rates in the 1980s, California legislators instituted gang enhancements” as a sentencing mechanism to punish and deter gang violence. The statute (known as the STEP Act) allows prosecutors to add time to baseline prison terms for adult court defendants, including youth prosecuted as adults, who are facing gang allegations. Because the STEP law created mandatory minimums, gang enhancements lead to arbitrary, excessive prison sentences — with questionable deterrent effect. Additionally, the statute’s expansive scope lends itself to police and prosecutorial abuse of power, including racial profiling — with young men of color suffering the brunt of the law’s punitive focus. Furthermore, gang enhancements penalize youth for environmental factors outside of their control. 

The STEP Act applies to individuals with minimal gang connections, enabling prosecutorial abuse to flourish. For instance, in a 2015 law review article, a California prosecutor writes, “[A] non-gang member, an undocumented gang member, a hang-around or [a gang associate] can also be subject to a gang enhancement.” With complete disregard for her primary duty of seeking justice, this prosecutor delineates strategies to build the gang enhancement” against youth regardless of what the evidence shows. This mindset is an example of the cultural problem where “‘[t]he measure of a prosecutor’s success is the length of prison sentence they obtain.’” CJCJ’s young clients have been victims of this type of manipulation; police regularly identify our clients as gang associates” for actions as insignificant as waving to acquaintances whom authorities deem as gang-involved.

Furthermore, the gang law fosters institutional racism because it is vague and does not define gang member.” Police frequently label CJCJ’s Sentencing Service Program’s clients — most of whom are African-American and Hispanic youth — as gang affiliates” solely because of their race and the fact that they live in certain neighborhoods, despite research showing that white youth comprise the largest percentage of adolescent gang membership. 

The use of gang enhancements in the juvenile justice system is especially troubling because the juvenile court’s mission is rehabilitation. While youth who have juvenile adjudications cannot receive mandatory minimum prison sentences as a consequence of gang enhancements, they do experience negative, punishment-centered ramifications resulting from gang charges. For example, in juvenile court, prosecutors regularly use the broad nature of the STEP Act to their advantage in order to detain youth, commit young people to California’s youth correctional system, and support adult court transfers. Moreover, gang enhancements enable prosecutors to secure harsh prison sentences for youth convicted in adult court. Research shows that juvenile detention and incarceration are harmful for teens and that prosecuting youth as adults has serious, long-term collateral consequences.

Even when youth are active in gangs, enhancements do not remedy the underlying causes of their involvement. Research demonstrates that a main reason why youth join gangs is for protection — and that affiliated youth suffer higher rates of victimization than those with no gang connections. Another common reason why young people join gangs is because they provide a sense of belonging not otherwise available in their home settings.

Rather than protecting at-risk youth, law enforcement often rushes to judgment and punishment with little interest in understanding the forces driving gang-involvement. Investing in communities and supporting victim and rehabilitative services are crucial to reducing gang violence. The STEP Act is overly punitive, serves no rehabilitative function, and criminalizes young people for their ethnicity and uncontrollable environmental circumstances. As such, California is in urgent need of reforming its gang prosecution and sentencing practices.