Gang affiliation shouldn’t result in a longer prison sentence
This opinion piece was written for Mosaic Vision, an extension of the Mosaic Journalism Workshop, a summer program that provides real-world journalism training to Bay Area high school students.
Sending young offenders to jail for longer sentences because they are gang members or because the police claim they are is a mistake and has proven ineffective. It’s time to abolish tough penalties and focus on real solutions to juvenile delinquency.
In 1988, California passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, or STEP, which advocates say would protect communities from gang violence by adding increased jail time for committing gang-related crimes.
More than a generation since the law was passed, improvements to gang-related sentencing have not only proven ineffective, but have also disproportionately targeted low-income communities of color. There is no evidence that the law has influenced the serious crime rate.
Joanna Molina, a single mother of two, grew up in East San Jose in a low-income single-parent home and suffered the harm of gang improvements. She entered the criminal justice system at 17 when she was arrested for carjacking and robbery.
The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office fought to have her tried as an adult. Had the office prevailed, Molina could have faced an additional 12 to 15 years in prison with gang enhancements. Instead, with the support of the community, she was sentenced to three months in a juvenile hall and six months at the Muriel Wright Rehabilitation Ranch in Santa Clara County.
“I was not that person the prosecutor described to me,” Molina said. “It would be a loss of life to send me to prison for all these years.”
Sadly, her ex-husband who grew up in the system didn’t have the community support during his trial that Joanna had. His seven-year sentence was extended to 25 years with gang enhancements, which he is serving at California State Prison in Solano. Molina also has friends who entered the prison system as children and came out as adults, half their lives wasted.
Molina, who identifies as Chicana, believes the system targets black and brown people. She believes prosecutors examined her clothing and address in East San Jose and mislabeled her as a gang member. “They basically assumed I was [in a gang] because of where I lived and what I was wearing at the time,” she said.
The state’s gang database, CalGang, lists 150,000 suspected gang members, 85% of whom are black or Latino between the ages of 9 and 65. Molina pleaded for his name to be removed from the database, but many other wrongfully listed people are unable to plead for its removal.
It is unfair to give someone a longer sentence simply because they have gang ties or because overzealous police officers claim so.
“There’s no way for someone who spent 15 to 30 years in prison to come back and be a productive member of society,” Molina said. They have no context to thrive in a community beyond prison walls, she said. “We contribute to homelessness and the drug addiction problem by sending people away for so long,” Molina said.
Improvements to gangs also hurt children and families. Molina said. “There are different heads in this monster that really ends up affecting generations.”
According to the National Institute of Justice, children whose parents enter the criminal justice system face a myriad of challenges and difficulties, including psychological stress, antisocial behavior, suspension or deportation from the school, economic hardship and criminal activity.
“One of the negative childhood experiences is having a loved one in prison,” said Molina, who hasn’t taken her children to see their father recently because she doesn’t want to risk their mental health. “I have to be ready to somehow make sure they heal from this trauma.”
Improving sentences does little to address the roots of youth crime. Instead, we should provide every child with a quality education and adopt proven anti-gang measures. “If I had been taught at a young age that there is another way to love your people, showing them how to advocate, changing politics and getting involved, then I think my life would have been different. “, Molina said.
Providing families with effective anti-gang social programs and education would better protect communities and help at-risk youth. Gang-related sentencing enhancements should be abolished.
Molina now works at a law firm and is a freshman at Lincoln Law School. She hopes to improve society and the justice system. She wants to stand up for children, eliminate gang-aggravated punishments, and improve society. She said, “I wish I could do something for my community.
Dali Yadira Guerrero Fernández is a second year student at Cristo Rey San José Jesuit High School. She is a member of the Mosaic Vision High School Journalism Program.