Enhancing The Youth

On the night of April 29, 2009 two adults and seven juveniles were arrested in the 300 block of Truslow Avenue in Fullerton suspected of felony vandalism.

According to the OC Register, the suspects were using gray, white and silver paint to mark the ground, a fence, a utility pole and a moveable basketball hoop and backboard. The seven juveniles were, according to the OC Register, “identified as gang members” and taken to the Orange County Juvenile Hall.

Due to the sealing of juvenile records in Orange County, the names and charges of the seven juveniles are not made available to the public.

The two 18-year-old adults Juan Hernandez and Adriana Valdez were charged with felony vandalism. The Orange County District Attorney’s office suggested sentencing enhancements for criminal gang activity as well as street terrorism.

Jennifer Laskin is part of the Santa Cruz Alliance Against Gang Enhancements, an activist group that opposes the STEP laws in California. While Laskin said while she is not familiar with the cases of Hernandez and Valdez, she said she has read about similar cases in California.

She said laws like STEP perpetuates gang activity and does not solve the problem.

“Gang enhancement laws are gifts to district attorneys, prison unions and law enforcement,” she said.

Under the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (186.20-186.33), gang and street terrorism sentencing enhancements can be added if the crime can be proven it was carried out for the benefit of and/or association with a criminal street gang.

According to the OCDA website, it could potentially add anywhere from 2 months to 10 years to a sentence if the defendant is convicted with the original crime along with the enhancement.

Gang enhancement charges were dropped for both Valdez and Hernandez. Both were found guilty of felony vandalism, according to the OC Vision Courts website.

The street terrorism charges were dropped for Valdez. She was sentenced to three days in jail, three years probation and one-year license suspension.

Hernandez was found guilty of street terrorism. Hernandez was sentenced to 171 days in jail, three years probation and one-year driver’s license suspension.

Gang enhancement sentencing was dismissed for both defendants however, Hernandez’s conviction of street terrorism was in conjunction with the STEP law.

While violent offenders have been convicted under the STEP law, the text of the law stating that any crime benefiting a gang can be eligible for sentencing enhancements have been troublesome for those suspected of non-violent crimes as well as those who have family or friends who are affiliated with gangs.

The strain on families of those charged or convicted with gang/street terrorism enhancements with non-violent crimes can be destructive to the community, Laskin said.

“A lot of these families are already living in poverty,” she said. “All of their energy gets sucked into the court system.”

Laskin said many families find themselves having to take off work or miss school for court dates or to visit their loved ones in jail.

Not only do families have to make sacrifices but the general public does as well, especially when the system imprisons juveniles, according to Laskin.

Laskin stated that more taxpayer money goes towards incarcerating youth rather than educating them.

According to an Aug. 20 article in the New York Times, California spends $216,000 per juvenile inmate a year. The state spends only $8,000 per child in the Oakland public school system.

Laskin said community can raise their concerns about gang enhancement laws by organizing support and encouraging alternatives to the gang lifestyle.

“We must educate, not incarcerate our youth,” Laskin said.

A 2004 report from the Orange County District Attorney stated the Office has been “increasingly aggressive in filing sentencing enhancements since 1999.”

In 2004, 71% of gang defendants were charged with either active participation in a criminal street gang or committing a crime, at the direction of, in association with, or for the benefit of a criminal street gang.

According to the report, in 2004 alone 769 or 90% of convicted gang members were sentenced to custody time. In addition, 333 were committed to state prison or the California Youth Authority. Of those sent to prison in 2004, 32 were sentenced to life.

Currently, the Orange County District Attorney website states the Office “extensively uses the STEP Act to aggressively prosecute gang members and seek the stiffest penalties possible.”

In 2007, over a thousand gang members were prosecuted and over 80% of these gang members were also charged with STEP Act allegations or enhancements, significantly increasing their time behind bars. The Office has a 93% conviction rate in gang cases and 21 gang members were sentenced to life in prison last year.

It is unclear how many of those case statistics listed above were involving violent or non-violent offenders.

Calls inquiring about gang and street terrorism sentencing enhancements to the Orange County District Attorney’s office and Orange County Public Defender’s Office were not returned.

The Orange County District Attorney Office defends the STEP Act, stating on its website that the Office “is dedicated to removing the most dangerous gang members from our streets and neighborhoods.”

Gang members are responsible for a large percentage of crimes in the Orange County community, according to the OCDA website.

The actual text of the STEP Act can be found here: http://www.aroundthecapitol.com/code/getcode.html?file=./pen/00001-01000/186.20-186.33

Amber Stephens