Examining Gang Enhanced Sentences In California's Legal System
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates talks to Daniel Alarcon about his reporting on gang enhanced charges and sentencing. California law gives the prosecution the chance to increase the penalty in gang cases.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:
In California, the same crime can have two wildly different penalties - one for gang members and one for everybody else. They're called gang-enhanced sentences, and they came onto the books during the violence of the 1980s as something called the STEP Act. Writer Daniel Alarcon has recently spent time reporting on the issue. When we talked, he began by explaining the law.
DANIEL ALARCON: The STEP Act defined legally what a gang was and created a series of enhancements to sentencing. That is to say if a defendant is convicted of a crime and the crime is also for the benefit or at the direction of a criminal street gang, then the conviction is longer than it would've normally been.
BATES: Daniel, talk a little bit about what difference gang enhancement makes in sentencing, and how often is it allowed?
ALARCON: We know that between 7 or 8 percent of the inmates in California prisons right now have some form of gang enhancements. They can be as little as two years. It can be as much as life. It depends on the underlying accusation - on the underlying conviction. You know, California's prisons are famously overcrowded and overburdened. And so, you know, 7, 8 percent extra is a lot. That's a lot of time. That's a lot of man years in prison.
BATES: I'm wondering if it's sometimes also used to buttress what could be a shaky case - if it sort of looks like a shaky case on its own that, well, you know, gangs are involved and all of a sudden juries go woo (ph) - gangs. Does that happen?
ALARCON: I think it happens. I think I saw it happen. I think I've felt how effective it was. I sat in a number of courtrooms in the course of reporting this story where a prosecutor would show photos taken off of a cell phone or off of social networks of a defendant and the defendant's extended network of friends and associates - many times photos where the defendant wasn't even there. The photos can be of adolescents and young men, you know, looking scary, deliberately looking threatening, looking aggressive, scowling at the camera with tattoos, throwing up signs. And I see those images in the courtroom and I'm like, well, yeah, they look like gang members to me. But the question is are they really? Or are they posing? And a lot of people argue people pose tough, act tough as a navigation strategy. You know, I think many are inclined to say, well, I don't care if he's posing or not. If he's a gang member, lock him up.
BATES: Finally, let me ask you - there's been a lot of talk about what happened in Waco a couple of weeks ago in terms of the big motorcycle gang blow up and a lot of discussion about that wasn't a gang. Those were just some guys out for a weekend ride and, you know, a couple of bad apples got out of hand and don't tar them all with this brush. Is there, in your estimation, this real line of demarcation between people who may behave the same way, may have the same folkways even, but are just ethnically different?
ALARCON: Absolutely. I mean, 100 percent - I mean, if there's one thing that I took away from this - you know, look, I wrote to California Department of Corrections and asked them for their numbers. And I asked them to break it down, you know, by length of enhancement, by race and ethnicity, and they did it. They did it right away. They were very helpful, and I appreciate that. They sent me the numbers. Upwards of 90 percent - it was 90 percent and some decimal points - of the inmates in California prisons serving with gang enhancements are black or Latino. Three percent are white. I do not believe that of all the gang members in California only 3 percent are white. I don't believe that. I don't think there's any evidence to prove that.
So then the question is why? Why is it happening that way? One of the defense experts that I spoke to, a gang expert named Jesse De La Cruz, he told me that he'd worked 75 cases and he'd only worked with one white defendant. It's not news that law enforcement has complicated, tense relationships with communities of color. And it's no secret that the criminal justice system is not fair to people of color either. We know that.
BATES: Daniel Alarcon is a writer. His article for The New York Times Magazine "How Do You Define A Gang Member?" was published this week. Thanks very much for talking with us.
ALARCON: Thank you, Karen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.