California Gang Database Even Sweeps 1-Yr Old Infants Into the System – Report

by Urooba Jamal, teleSUR

A recent audit of California’s statewide gang database, CalGang, found that nearly 85 percent of the names listed were of Black people and Latinos, infants as young as 1 year old, and a number of people who were unaware they were on the list at all.

Critics say that the audit, which was requested by state legislature and was initially prompted by San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Webster, represents a doubling-down on the criminalization of young men of color.

Gaby Hernandez, an organizer with PODER Santa Barbara and Chicanos Unidos, told teleSUR that the database amounts to “note-taking” compiled in secret, similar to the East German secret police or Stasi, and includes neither safeguards nor accountability. “The gang database is a very dangerous tool,” she said. “This is a system that is used against you.”

This “note-taking” has very real and grave consequences for Black and Latino populations in the over-policed working-class neighborhoods of California. It works in conjunction with gang injunctions, a civil action that law-enforcement officers claim is a tool for preventing alleged gang members from engaging in unlawful practices, but often works to criminalize young men of color who are engaged in completely lawful activities, or minor, nonviolent offenses at worst.

As Francisco “Chavo” Romero, an organizer with Union del Barrio and Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective Oxnard, told teleSUR, it’s not an increase in the number of crimes that is driving the growing numbers of young men in the criminal justice system, but an increase in policing which can only justify its presence through arrests.

“How easy it is to be labeled a gang member—that’s really the heart of the issue,” said Romero.

With unclear criteria for who can be put in the database, Romero explained that the most innocuous gestures—such as having certain tattoos or wearing certain clothing—can get someone placed on the list. More disturbingly, police can pressure a “reliable source” to identify someone as a gang member in exchange for, say, a lighter sentence. Even corresponding with a gang member through Facebook, even if they’re a relative, can earn someone a spot in the database.

Concurrently, gang injunctions use the militarized language of “target zones” to partition entire cities in an effort to “control people’s movement and association,” explained Romero. In other words, people in the database are subject to constant police scrutiny under these zones to make sure they are not violating the injunction’s curfew and association clauses, and the most banal activities—leaving the house after 10 p.m. for instance—are sanctioned with fines or six-month sentences.

However, radical community organizing has prompted some reforms. Romero won a two-year battle that concluded in 2006 to force the city of Oxnard to rescind its gang injunction clauses. More recently, an L.A. teenager, who is listed in CalGang and who was subject to constant arrests for leaving his house after 10 p.m., won a settlement against local police agencies stipulating that US$23 million must be redirected toward youth programming.

Still, the jails are bursting with young Black and Latino people. For example, Hernandez said that police use “gang enhancements” to lengthen a prisoner’s sentence, adding as many as 10 years to a prison term simply for being named on the database, which is especially troubling since many are unaware they’re on the database.

An investigation into California’s criminal sentencing structure by NBC Bay Area News found that thousands of offenders have had additional time tacked on to their prison sentence because of the system of gang enhancements, worsening already overcrowded conditions.

“Everybody (loses) when we have these overcrowded prisons,” said Mike Vitiello, a professor of law at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in the NBC Bay Area. “So we all suffer with this over-elaborate criminal justice system that just piles on these excessive, obscenely excessive sentences.”

Moreover, Hernandez said that while California is home to more white supremacist gangs than any state in the country, white gang members are seldom affected by lengthier gang enhancements sentencing.

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