Getting into a street gang is no picnic — being “jumped in” can leave you with aches, scrapes and bruises from the brutal induction ritual — but it’s a piece of cake compared to getting out, say those who have managed the U-turn. Among the barriers, they say, are hostility (or even threats) from the set you‘re abandoning, and the difficulty of finding legitimate employment after years of life on the edge.
And what have law-enforcement agencies offered people navigating this tricky change of course? Another major obstacle, gang-intervention experts claim: an indelible branding from law enforcement, in the form of gang databases you can’t seem to get out of. “We desperately need a mechanism for people who‘ve turned their lives around to get past what used to be called youthful indiscretions,” says William “Blinky” Rodriguez of Communities in Schools, a San Fernando Valley gang peacemaker since losing his 16-year-old son to a drive-by shooting.
In a series of meetings initiated by state Senator Tom Hayden, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his top lieutenants sat down with former gang members, public defenders, gang experts and others to develop new exit strategies, making it easier to leave the gang life and get off law enforcement’s CALGANG list of bad boys and girls. One avenue they agreed on was a pilot project to expand on a transition program run by the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A.
Cal State L.A.‘s Gang Violence Bridging Project offers a two-step approach to steering young gang members, wannabes or at-risk youth away from gang life and into college or jobs. In its first six years, 100 of its graduates have enrolled at Cal State L.A., says director Gilbert Sanchez, and some of the first alumni are now tutoring their successors. The introductory phase is a series of 26 short afternoon workshops aimed at building self-confidence and hope, addressing anger and grief management and developing practical skills for handling finances and schedules. Phase two offers preparation for college life, including the basics of study and research skills, plus coaching for math and English assessment tests. The project is funded largely by foundation and corporate grants, but $300,000 in this year’s state budget will underwrite the cost of serving 50 more young people, says Sanchez. The newcomers will be recruited from the East Los Angeles–Boyle Heights–El Sereno area.
The Sheriff‘s Department wants to add crime-related workshops that explain the rationale for the database, the legal risks of gang membership and the impact of violence on the community. Once they have completed the program, graduates will get a card they can show in future law-enforcement contacts, certifying their new status.
The meetings also produced commitments from the sheriff to clean up other problems with the database. Reversing current policy of refusing to tell individuals whether they are listed, the department will now start notifying those added to the roster, and advising them of the right to appeal their inclusion. Appeals, says Commander Gil Jurado, will be handled by a panel including community representatives as well as Sheriff’s Department staff.
Although the Sheriff‘s Department is the regional coordinator and maintains the database, it has no power over the policies of the LAPD or other police departments when it comes to adding or deleting names, Jurado says.
That leaves many on the list unaffected by the revised rules. While Rodriguez and Sanchez are hopeful that other agencies will follow Baca’s lead, LAPD Commander Dan Koenig is skeptical of the new direction. “Why would we tell them they‘re on it?” he asks. “Does Schwarzkopf tell the Iraqis?” In Koenig’s view the system is an intelligence tool, useful for narrowing down likely suspects and helping cops grasp what‘s happening on the street. “If you’re not involved in criminal activity,” he asks, “why would you care about being on it?”
CALGANG allows officers to view photographs online, create photo lineups on the fly for use in the field, link gang members to their associates, locate suspects via a wide variety of search criteria including moniker, alias, description, scars, tattoos and vehicles. It‘s a useful resource, says the California Department of Justice, for tracking the movement of gangs across the state and for forecasting crime trends. One also can view surveillance videos across the entire network only minutes after they are filmed.
But questions have been raised in many quarters, including the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, about the broad criteria for inclusion in the database.
Many of the 12 indicators used by the sheriff as signs of gang affiliation are compelling: gang tattoos, gang graffiti on clothing, statements of membership by the subject. One or two sound strong — “arrests with known gang members,” for example — but don’t actually establish either criminal actions or cooperation with a gang. Being arrested (even if not convicted) at a noisy party could get you added on the basis of this criterion.
Others — attendance at gang functions, “style of dress consistent with gang membership” — are less damning. “Associates with known gang members” (who could, of course, be relatives or neighbors) is clearly guilt by association. According to the LAPD‘s Koenig, any two of the indicators are sufficient to get someone listed. Once on the roster, a suspect is “purged” only after five years pass without a police “contact.” Since a “contact” does not require commission of an offense and can be initiated at an officer’s discretion, some people “stay on the list forever,” says one deputy public defender.
While Baca was devising new avenues to help bangers out of the gang life, Governor Gray Davis was finding new roadblocks to replicating such programs, pulling funds for locally developed juvenile-crime-prevention initiatives from the Schiff-Cardenas Crime Prevention Act (AB2885) before signing it — an innovative semi-veto that left only the hard-edge strategy of apprehend and prosecute funded. The original bill set aside $121 million for prevention and deterrence. Specific programs were to be shaped, and spending to be funneled through various counties‘ Juvenile Justice Coordinating Councils, multi-agency task forces chaired by Attorney General Janet Reno. Prospective projects ranged from truancy and mental-health counseling for at-risk youth to substance-abuse and drug-diversion programs and close monitoring of probationers and parolees. Los Angeles County was slated to receive $34 million.
In announcing his plan to do away with that part of the act, Davis says, “The programmatic justification for the juvenile-justice programs in the bill is insufficient” and their benefits “unclear.” Although the bill enumerated several criteria by which programs would be evaluated — juvenile arrest rate, restitution rate, community service and probation-completion rates — the assessment formula was not specific enough, explains Calvin Smith of the state Finance Department. As a counter-proposal, the governor offers slightly more than half the funds ($71 million) for such efforts, but adds several conditions: The money may not go to existing locally funded programs, and legislators must include “a mechanism for the programs . . . to be measured and assessed.” As written, the bill “amounted to block grants to the counties,” says Smith. Davis demands as a final condition that $9 million be included for Turning Point Academy, a six-month “boot camp” that would accept about 300 juveniles per year who had been expelled for bringing weapons to school.
“We need to invest an equal amount proactively, at the front end,” says state Senator Adam Schiff, one of the bill’s authors and a former federal prosecutor, after chairing a hearing on youth violence in Glendale July 20. “When D.A.s can decide to send 14-year-olds to prison with adult murderers and rapists, we should be spending some money on prevention,” agrees state Senate majority leader John Burton, alluding to one of the draconian terms of Proposition 21, approved in the March primary.
Besides offending backers of the legislation, Davis‘ decision upset lawmakers because of his unprecedented attempt to pick and choose among spending items within a single bill, blocking the $121 million for prevention while approving another $121 million for police and prisons. A governor can sign a bill, veto it or reduce everything in it proportionately, but “he can’t rewrite it,” says Burton, who promises, “There‘ll be an effort to assert the separation of powers outlined in our constitution.”