Evan Sernoffsky, San Francisco Chronicle, December 15, 2019
One of Chesa Boudin’s first planned policy changes when he takes over as San Francisco’s district attorney next month seeks to answer a question that has long ignited debates in the city: Should people accused of crimes face harsher punishments if their actions allegedly benefited a street gang?
The former public defender, who takes office Jan. 8, promises to put an end to filing what are known as gang enhancements against defendants — charges that can add years to felony sentences. Gang enhancements have drawn increased opposition in California, driven by statistics showing that they are disproportionately applied to people of color in poor neighborhoods.
Many law enforcement leaders say the charges are an important tool that allows them to hold gang members accountable for the fear they create in communities when they protect turf, intimidate witnesses, recruit new associates and commit violent crimes. But critics say gang enhancements yield arbitrary and excessive sentences, sending black and brown people to jail and prison at higher rates than white people who commit the same crimes, like assault or robbery.
State prison records show that of 11,484 inmates who were serving sentences with a gang enhancement as of Aug. 31, 68% were Hispanic and 24% were black. Just 3% were white.
“I want to focus on holding people accountable for what they’ve done — not who they are,” Boudin told The Chronicle. “People are seeing their families impacted by overzealous uses of these gang allegations.”
Boudin said gang enhancements are “infused with racism.” The punishments, he said, increase tensions between minority communities and law enforcement, ultimately making the city less safe. “There are violent crimes that are going unsolved,” he said, “and we need cooperation from these communities where these crimes are being committed.”
Proponents of gang enhancements, however, said the charges have been a valuable tool in protecting residents of neighborhoods plagued by organized criminals. They argue that going after gangs and the power they wield have prompted steep declines in homicides in San Francisco and around the state over the past decade.
Victims of gang crimes, proponents said, are also disproportionately people of color.
“Getting rid of the gang enhancement assumes that there’s no gang problem,” said Eric Siddall, a Los Angeles County gang prosecutor and vice president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys. “The law was created for a very specific purpose with a very specific target and for very specific violence.”
To be convicted of a gang enhancement, a defendant must participate in a “criminal street gang” while knowing its members have committed “a pattern of criminal gang activity,” and while promoting or assisting in that activity. The sentencing enhancement can add two, three or four years to an underlying felony. If the felony is defined as serious or violent, the defendant can face an additional five or 10 years, respectively.
More than a decade ago, the city began obtaining civil court injunctions against gangs that barred alleged members from engaging in certain activities in neighborhood “safety zones,” under threat of arrest. Those named in the injunctions could not associate with each other in public, wear certain colors or seek to recruit new members, for example.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who filed those lawsuits, said they worked to cut crime. But opponents said the injunctions created a new set of potential crimes for a specific group of people, all of whom were African American or Latino. The city recently scaled back the program after criticism that it violated the defendants’ civil rights.
The law allowing gang enhancements came decades earlier. California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act of 1988, known as the STEP Act, was designed to go after street gangs during an era of high violent crime in California.
At its zenith, California had more than 4,000 homicides in 1993. That number has steadily fallen, and just over 1,700 killings occurred last year, according to the state Department of Justice. Experts debate the reason for the drop, but many credit interventions by police and anti-violence groups in stemming retribution killings between gangs.
George Gascón, who was considered to be one of the country’s most progressive top prosecutors when he stepped down in October as San Francisco’s district attorney, charged gang enhancements. He did so, however, “only in the most serious instances,” said Max Szabo, his former spokesman.
Gascón, now running for district attorney in Los Angeles County, appears to have changed his position. At a debate Wednesday night at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, he said he would stop charging gang enhancements and support statewide efforts to repeal the law.