California is radically reforming much of its established criminal law. Doing away with the DJJ, California will be moving its juvenile prison system to a program based on housing and reform. Similarly, the state is stepping away from special sentencing for street gang members. For over three decades, people accused of gang affiliation were sentenced much harsher than those convicted of the same crimes.
The Old System
The Step Act
In 1988, Californians were facing growing fears related to the rise in street gangs. The history of these gangs stretches back to the 1960s, but in the 80s, their profiles were growing. With the popularization of gangsta rap and national news attention, citizens were starting to fear simply walking the streets. Enter the STEP Act.
The Acronym STEP stands for “Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention.” This illustrates how much fear there was around street gangs. They had been elevated to the level of terrorists. The law was designed as a catch-all to make any and all gang activity inherently illegal. Even its definition of a gang was quite broad.
Under the STEP guidelines, a gang was any group that:
- Had three or more people
- Had criminal acts as one of its “primary activities”
- Had a name or an “identifying symbol”
- Had members that engage in a pattern of criminal activity, either presently or in the past
Given those stipulations, it’s easy to imagine how police could fit people into this category. You could use those definitions to define a church group as a “gang” if one of its members was arrested for bookkeeping.
Under STEP, convicted criminals were given sentencing “enhancements,” upping the severity of their crimes. If arrested, someone could be given anywhere from 5 to 15 years for a misdemeanor. Judges could add life sentences to minor felonies if they believed you were a gang member.
It doesn’t take long to see the flaws in this system. People were sentenced harshly in “guilt by association” circumstances. For example, let’s say Ted and Jim were arrested for armed robbery. The evidence against them was pretty strong, so they were convicted. Ted is an active, known gang member, and the prosecution argues that the robbery was meant to fund his gang. Jim, on the other hand, was just Ted’s friend, and he wanted his cut for himself. Under STEP enhancements, Jim could be convicted with harsher, gang-related penalties just for his friendship with Ted.
That’s not all. The getaway driver, Fred, was also a member of Ted’s gang. Even though he didn’t actively participate in the robbery, Fred could be sentenced with harsh STEP penalties.
The New System
On December 18, 2020, District Attorney George Gascón released Special Directive 20-08.2. In this document, he explains that after meeting with community leaders, he has decided to drop enhanced sentencing for many of California’s current exceptions. STEP laws will no longer be in place. Gang-related crimes aren’t the only ones losing enhanced sentencing. Other abolished enhancements include crimes involving a firearm and “special circumstance” enhancements.
Sentencing enhancements will remain, however, for crimes “involving the most vulnerable victims and in specified extraordinary circumstances.” This includes:
- Hate crimes
- Elder abuse
- Child abuse
- Sexual Abuse
- Human Trafficking
- Financial crimes that have a “significant impact” or exploit a “vulnerable victim population”
- Crimes where the victim’s physical injury is “extensive”
- Crimes where a firearm poses “an extreme and immediate threat to human life”
What These Changes Mean
As is the case with much of California’s recent reforms, it’s too early to tell exactly what happens next. Standards are being redefined across the board; new programs are being created in every county; and law enforcement is restructuring itself. One thing is clear: Convicted criminals should no longer have gang-related charges made more severe. Whatever happens next, astute lawyers will be keeping an eye on these changes, ready to hold law enforcement accountable.
Talk to a Lawyer
Whenever there are major changes in the law, it’s good to have an experienced lawyer on your side. The gears of government turn slowly, and there are always people who get stuck in the “old ways.” If you’ve been charged with a crime that law enforcement could attach to gang activity, talk to a lawyer today. Your attorney will keep a close eye on the proceedings and be there to catch authorities attempting to trump up charges and sentencing.
Also, you should call an attorney if you or a loved one is currently serving an enhanced, gang-related sentence. With the changes in the law, it may be possible to appeal your sentence and fight to have it reduced.