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Abolish sentencing enhancements for gang members

This past week, San Francisco introduced a new district attorney in Chesa Boudin who has promised to abolish sentencing enhancements for gang members as one of his first priorities in office. Counties throughout the Bay Area would be wise to follow suit.

First introduced in 1987’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, gang enhancements lengthen criminal sentences for gang members under the assumption that longer periods of imprisonment will incapacitate or deter them from committing crime. However, one of the biggest problems with gang enhancements concerns who they should be used against.

The process for officially designating or “validating” someone as a gang member is notoriously subjective, with little oversight of who is validated or how. For example, according to a 2015 audit of Calgang, California’s statewide database of validated gang members and associates, individuals are regularly listed for reasons such as “wearing gang dress,” having “gang tattoos,” or “frequenting gang areas,” which all rely on individual discretion of which areas, tattoos, or dress indicate gang membership. This allows for racial profiling to influence who officers see as gang-involved, or for records to be falsified entirely to depict residents as gang members, as was recently uncovered in Los Angeles. Additionally, my own (and several colleagues’) research has found that guards working in juvenile detention or county jails often separate inmates based on racial conflicts or gang rivalries, and pressure unaffiliated Black and Latinx individuals to “pick a side” in these disputes. These choices are commonly recorded in probation files as gang affiliation or association, and provide almost a quarter of all Calgang listings.

Validation processes such as these have established gang membership as a criminal status that is almost exclusively applied to people of color. More than 85% of those validated as gang members in California are Black or Latinx, and in some Bay Area communities this discrepancy is even more dramatic. For example, of the 1,195 names that the San Jose Police Department had listed in Calgang as of 2017, 1,062 are categorized as Hispanic, while only 39 are white.

Gang enhancements cement these labels as people are brought to court, ensuring unequal outcomes from the justice system along racial lines. Prosecutors frequently use gang enhancements and the years of prison time they can add to pressure defendants into guilty pleas, preventing suspected gang members from ever even seeing their day in court. These individuals then not only face longer prison sentences, but are also exposed to greater threats of violence while in custody. Even after they are released, suspected gang ties influence one’s parole conditions such that perfectly legal acts become criminal, meaning visiting a relative or owning a red shirt can become grounds for reincarceration. This can even impact how juveniles are disciplined, as teenagers labeled as gang-involved may face residential displacement, school expulsion, and placement in a school-to-prison pipeline that limits opportunities and tracks them for eventual imprisonment.

Gang enhancements exacerbate racial disparities in punishment, criminalize poor youth of color, and make it more difficult for actual gang members to leave their pasts behind. They should have no place in our criminal justice system. This is not to say that gang members should not be held accountable for crimes committed, but it doesn’t make sense to punish them more than anyone else for the same crime, especially when our system for doing so magnifies larger problems with mass incarceration and racial inequality. Creating a distinct status for Black and Latinx residents that imposes a separate system of escalated punishments is not justice. Abolishing gang enhancements is necessary, and should be a step towards decriminalizing gang membership/identity entirely.

 Patrick Lopez-Aguado is an associate professor of sociology at Santa Clara University specializing in criminal justice.

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