Ed. Note: After a blistering state audit of the CalGang database showing the law enforcement tool is riddled with mistakes and unsubstantiated claims, the state assembly passed a measure to create some oversight and accountability mechanisms. Author J.M. Valle writes it is an important step in a long road ahead to eliminate the criminalization of youth of color in California.
On August 23, 2016, the California State Legislature passed Assembly Member Weber's AB2298 Criminal Gangs Bill. If signed by the governor, the bill will grant individuals, including parents, the right to be notified, contest and/or appeal being entered in the CalGang shared database. AB2298 will also grant the right to be removed from the database after three years.
CalGang is a shared "criminal intelligence database" targeting alleged members and associates of criminal street gangs. The database tracks descriptions, tattoos, associates, locations, vehicles, criminal histories and activities to be used by law enforcement and prosecution.
Earlier this month, the California State Auditor presented a report challenging the California Department of Justice, CalGang Executive Board, California Gang Advisory Committee, and several county and city law enforcement agencies who entered names and managed the database. According to the auditor, the report found that CalGang lacked oversight, transparency, public input and ultimately violates privacy rights. The audit found 42 individuals in CalGang who were younger than one year of age at the time of entry — 28 of whom were entered for “admitting to being gang members.”
AB2298 was introduced as a direct result of the California State Auditor's recommendations for an oversight structure that ensures that CalGang entries are reliable, protect individuals’ rights, and for the Legislature to adopt state law to enforce it.
Although the Criminal Gangs Bill is a great move towards solving our CalGang issue, this action alone speaks volumes on how CalGang, even if monitored, does not work. Additionally, the California State Auditor's recommendation for oversight may sound like a good idea, but the question for our state is: Why should the community improve an already flawed database? If the state is interested in protecting the rights of individuals, particularly youth, the community should drive its efforts towards a complete elimination of CalGang and the Gang Enhancement Laws.
For decades, any non-white youth with a pair of Dickies and pride for their heritage could be entered in the database. The word of informants is reason alone to enter someone in CalGang, even individuals who have yet to be accused of committing a crime. Beat officers often harass individuals who live in gang hotspots simply because of where they live. Youth and adults are often thrown under the bus with generic “Northerner” and “Southerner” labels without having to tie them to an actual gang. Alleged offenders are convicted with gang enhancements based on tattoos and pictures without having to prove that the crime benefited a gang.
According to California state law; a gang enhancement is charged to offenders who “actively participated” in a pattern of criminal gang activity, willfully assisted, furthered, or promoted felonious criminal conduct, and has a common name or identifying sign or symbol.
In actuality, a gang enhancement is whatever a district attorney thinks he or she can prove to a jury to secure a conviction. Youth and young adults charged with a gang enhancement, are consequently coerced into taking deals before they ever get to see a jury, lengthening their sentence. Felonies with a gang enhancement are strike-able offenses, leaving individuals vulnerable to potential life sentences upon re-entry.
Gang Enhancements capitalize from the criminalization of non-white males in disadvantaged communities who desire a need for identity, a sense of belonging, overcoming their impoverished conditions, and becoming a man.
Today, the California prison system is overcrowded. Over 40% of its population is Hispanic, making Hispanics the majority. Blacks come in second falling just below 30%. Chowchilla, once a women's prison has now been converted to an all male correctional facility due to the overflowing male incarceration rate.
The community should recognize the passing of the AB2298 Criminal Gangs Bill as a victory. Granting individuals and parents the right to be notified, contest, appeal and be removed from CalGang; it moves us further towards the longer road ahead. But the California State Auditor's recommendation for oversight will only grant the community a role in further criminalizing our young people. The elimination of CalGang and the Gang Enhancement Laws should be the community's only drive so that our young people can stay out of prison and stay with their families.