The proliferation of gang injunctions is as problematic it is enticing. The injunctions are not sufficiently linked to broader, long term implications; many consider them politically driven, shortsighted and needlessly suppressive. Think about it. Do gang injunctions really reduce violence or simply move gangs underground and/or to other less cop-saturated areas.
The following definitions and a snapshot of current gang suppression efforts, i.e. gang injunctions, are intended to increase public understanding of this important issue. (The definitions are embraced by law enforcement throughout California.)
"Criminal Street Gang"–Defined as an organization, association or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, which (1) has continuity of purpose, (2) seeks a group identity, and (3) has members who individually or collectively engage in, or have engaged in, a pattern of criminal activity.
"Gang Related Crime"–A crime is gang-related if the suspect, or the victim, is a known member of a gang, or there is reliable information indicating that a gang member committed the offense.
"Gang Member"–Defined as anyone who (1) actively participates in any gang with knowledge that its members engage in, or have engaged in, a pattern of criminal gang activity; and who (2) willfully promotes, furthers, or assists in any felonious criminal conduct by members of the gang.
An individual is identified as a gang member based on certain criteria, including the following: Admits gang membership or association; is observed to associate on a regular basis with known gang members; has tattoos indicating gang membership; wears gang clothing, symbols, etc., to identify with a specific gang; is in a photograph with known gang members and/or uses gang-related hand guns; name on a gang document, hit list or gang-related graffiti.
A gang injunction in Los Angeles involves the City Attorney office, with approval from a judge, issuing a restraining order against specific gang members of a particular gang. With information gathered from the police and public, a judge can grant a restraining order against identified members of a gang, in essence, suing them.
Most injunctions forbid named gang members to engage in a number of activities, some of which are illegal. Others include congregating in groups, curfew, possessing a pager or cellular phone, even riding bicycles.
Los Angeles first experimented with gang injunctions in the early 1980s in Pomona, West Covina and East Los Angeles. However, the injunction against the Playboy Gangster Crips in 1987 was the first civil abatement strategy. Los Angeles County injunctions have served as models for other cities.
There are several gang injunctions now in effect in LA County, including one by the City Attorney's Gang Unit against 18th Street in Pico-Union, two focusing on public housing sites-Nickerson Gardens and the Jungle. As is the case with 18th Street, injunctions are more often placed in areas surrounded by middle-class communities, or facing intense gentrification with intense political pressure. Since the mid-80's, there have been approximately 40 thirty additional injunctions throughout Los Angeles. (A recent injunction involves six gangs in different parts of the city.)
Anti-gang laws often result in "gang enhancement," which significantly increases penalties imposed for a "gang-related" offense. Gang enhancement laws can impose sentences which far exceed criminal law penalties for the same offense. In California, youth can face a life sentence in an adult prison for a residential robbery if it is deemed to have been "gang related."
Presumptions about gang affiliation also have severe consequences under the state's "Three Strikes" law intended for adults. Proposition 21 made any felony committed "on behalf of a gang" a strike. New "juvenile strikes" include offenses such as unarmed robbery and several which count as adult strikes. Gang affiliation is also a basis for transferring a youth to an adult court in some jurisdictions. Under California's Proposition 21, by merely alleging that an offense is "gang-related," prosecutors may have the power to file charges against a fourteen-year-old directly in adult court, without the generally required fitness hearing before a judge.
A defense attorney intoned, "The enthusiastic affirmation of anti-gang injunctions by the courts adds momentum to the broad movement that advocates criminalizing non-criminal conduct if such conduct is engaged in by people out of favor-justifiably or not-with the social mainstream." Ultimately, primary responsibility for reducing gang violence rests with residents working with others, including the police, on strategic, sustainable solutions.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org