Thirteen years ago, I moved to a heavily-policed neighborhood in Southern California. I realized things were different when suddenly I was pulled over by the police three times in one week. I’d been pulled over before, but something other than the frequency of these stops stood out to me. It was the first time police asked me if I was a gang member.
What I have learned since then, as the founder of Pillars of the Community and a father of two young men of color, is that this questioning about “gang affiliation” is a part of a long history of law enforcement’s attempt to label, criminalize, and abuse people in Black and Brown communities. What those officers were really trying to figure out was whether they could get away with violating my rights as a human being and constitutional protections as a citizen.
Recent years have brought new attention to the real impact of California’s gang laws. We’re at a strange inflection point: There are truly dangerous criminal gangs within law enforcement, who continue to act with impunity thanks to the inaction of prosecutors (L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, for example, is known for failing to prosecute bad police, and refusing to even exclude known bad cops from building bad cases). Those same police are maintaining a database of supposed gang members that’s so flawed, it includes the names of kids under one year old.
These laws create a separate system of justice for communities of color, with criminal charges that don’t require actual wrongdoing, and lead to longer sentences, restricted fundamental freedoms, and a tilted playing field in the courtroom. The legal consequences are clear: more Black and Brown bodies pulled from their families and communities, locked up, and forgotten. But these legal consequences are just the beginning. The truth about California’s gang suppression scheme is that it’s not just putting people in prison, it’s stripping entire communities of their futures. And because of that, it’s making us all less safe.
Contact with the criminal legal system can permanently destroy a person’s economic mobility. A criminal record is damaging enough, but add gang allegations and it becomes almost impossible for a person to transition out of prison, successfully find work, reconnect with family, and succeed. Research has shown that stable work and family relationships are the key to lowering recidivism and improving community safety. The more connected and engaged people are to their communities, the less likely those people are to end up back in prison. Factors that harm re-integration–like “reintegrative shaming” and labeling formerly incarcerated people as part of an out-group–create a self-fulfilling prophecy and have been linked to increased criminal activity. In other words, the very deliberate way in which gang suppression laws label, separate, and oppressively monitor people makes those people less able to succeed and more likely to cause future harm. Documented gang members are often barred from visiting or living with family members, prohibited from returning to their neighborhoods, and prevented from participating in any type of civic engagement in the communities they belong to. Rather than encouraging positive reentry into society, they are excluded from it.
California has already begun to recognize this. But what current conversations on reform fail to realize is that the most biased, unfair, damaging aspects of these enforcement schemes could be stopped with a single decision by powerful local prosecutors. County DAs can choose not to use gang enhancements, documentation, guilt by association, and potentially-unlawful gang allegations in their practice. And that choice would be one of the single strongest choices they could make for public safety. In fact, in San Francisco, voters just elected Chesa Boudin, a DA candidate who promised to end the use of gang enhancements, and noted their racist application.
The current gang suppression scheme only exists because it is politically expedient. It makes it easier for prosecutors to rack up wins, even if those wins are wildly unfair and result in wrongful incarceration. To embrace gang policing, allegations, and enhancements, is to sacrifice the public good on the altar of cheap victory. The right move for public safety is to stop using outdated laws that fracture communities and perpetuate crime; to step back away from gang enforcement schemes that have destroyed Black and Brown communities. Any prosecutor who truly cares about the public good will make the smart choice to stop relying on gang documentation, allegations, and enhancements to put communities of color behind bars.
Khalid Alexander, founder of Pillars of the Community, an advocacy organization based on faith, positivity, and a need to build a better world.