You see street gangs in Hollywood movies, but that doesn’t mean that the gangs are imaginary. In real life, street gangs commit a number of the drive-by shootings, drug crimes, armed robberies, and home invasions in Orange County and throughout southern California.
California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (the “STEP Act”) – is supposed to “enhance” – that is, make harsher – criminal penalties for members of street gangs, but innocent people can be misidentified and wrongly charged under the STEP Act as street gang members. Can an Orange County criminal defense law firm help?
HOW LONG HAVE THERE BEEN STREET GANGS IN CALIFORNIA?
First, some background. Young men join gangs for many reasons, but primarily for friendship and camaraderie. Scores of criminal gangs have emerged and disappeared in this part of the state for more than a century. Since the 1920s, criminal gangs have been operating in Los Angeles.
However, in recent decades, scores of new and increasingly dangerous gangs have emerged. In 2012, for example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that hundreds of street gangs were operating throughout southern California.
One of the responses from the state’s lawmakers has been the STEP Act, which was adopted in 1988. In 2000, California voters approved Proposition 21, a statute which made it less difficult legally to move juvenile offenders into California’s adult criminal justice system.
HOW MANY GANGS OPERATE NOW IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA?
Today, over 175,000 gang members belong to more than 1,300 criminal gangs in southern California, according to the most current FBI statistics. No responsible person denies that the overall general impact of these gangs on young people is destructive and negative.
However, when police officers operate on stereotypes – that is when they use symbols, clothes, tattoos, age, and race to “profile” gang members – they cast a net that is far too wide, and they sometimes end up accusing innocent people of gang membership and gang-related crimes.
It’s a flawed strategy. That type of profiling does not and cannot effectively deal with the problem of street gangs in Orange County and adjacent southern California communities.
HOW CAN STREET GANGS BE DEALT WITH EFFECTIVELY?
Instead, legal experts insist that dealing effectively with gangs will require coordination and cooperation among police agencies, courts, schools, healthcare professionals, and the media.
The fact is that most members of gangs are typical, average youths, and their crimes typically involve fights about girls, respect, and “territory.” Serious criminals – like killers and armed robbers – constitute only a tiny fraction of southern California’s street gang members.
That is one reason why parents in Orange County and elsewhere in California need to learn about gang laws such as the STEP Act.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE EFFECT OF THE STEP ACT ON JUVENILE DEFENDANTS?
The sentencing enhancements established by the STEP ACT are a genuine concern in situations involving juveniles because the juvenile courts in California are supposed to oversee rehabilitation rather than incarceration and punishment.
However, some of the prosecutors in our state have abused the STEP Act and have detained youths with no cause, have wrongly committed innocent young people into California’s youth correctional system, and have supported moving juvenile proceedings into the adult courts.
These steps haven’t worked, and sometimes, a young person is damaged rather than rehabilitated by the system. Most California police officials now advocate multiple strategies for dealing with criminal gang activity, and they insist that the entire community must be involved.
Instead of rehabilitating and protecting young people who are at-risk, the STEP Act is egregiously punitive. California must reconsider its strategies for dealing with gang crimes and for handling the criminal prosecutions of gang members.
PRECISELY HOW DOES THE STEP ACT WORK?
Sentencing enhancements are only one part of the STEP Act. The statute also makes it illegal for anyone in California to participate in any street gang activity. A conviction for gang activity or membership in a gang is punishable with as much as three years in state prison.
Gang-related crimes involving minors and gang-related crimes committed near the premises of a school are punished more harshly.
The STEP Act provides for sentencing enhancements – mandatory additional prison time – when defendants are convicted of felonies committed for a gang’s benefit. The extra prison time – at least two years, and much more in some cases – is added to the standard felony sentence.
In fact, if someone has been convicted of committing an egregious, gang-related violent felony, the sentencing enhancement may run as long as twenty-five years.
HOW ARE STEP ACT SENTENCES AND ENHANCEMENTS DETERMINED?
To convict a suspect for a violation of the STEP Act, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant aided and/or abetted or committed a gang-related felony.
Because every case is different, the precise penalty for a STEP Act conviction will depend on the details of the underlying felony charge as well as the details of the defendant’s criminal record.
It’s a complicated criminal statute. If you are charged with a STEP Act violation, you must reach out for legal help immediately and contact an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU’RE TAKEN INTO CUSTODY?
If you’re placed under arrest, be polite and cooperative, but do not give answers to any questions. Simply and politely explain that you prefer to remain silent until you can meet with an attorney. Then speak with a reliable defense lawyer as soon as you can.
Unfortunately, innocent people in Southern California – people who have never been gang members – have been wrongly accused of gang membership and gang crimes because of the STEP Act.
WHEN SHOULD YOU SPEAK TO A DEFENSE LAW FIRM?
If that happens to you or to someone you love, you will need to work with an Orange County criminal defense attorney who has considerable experience representing clients who have been charged with gang-related crimes, and you’ll need to contact that attorney immediately.
If you’re innocent, if you committed a low-level crime and it was not gang-related – and even if you are guilty – the right defense attorney can help, but you must take the first step and contact that attorney.
A STEP Act violation charge can put your freedom and your future at risk. If you are charged with any gang-related crime in southern California, get the help that you will very much need, and get it immediately. A good defense attorney’s help is your right.