The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Controversial gang injunction provisions questioned

Growing up in Pacoima, it did not take long for Jose Alvarez to have run-ins with the police. Without much parental supervision, Alvarez, along with some friends, made the transition from graffiti writer to gang member.

He began living what he referred to as “a life of fantasy.”

But eventually the drugs and violence that formed the harsh reality of the streets caught up to him.

“Over the years, I had lost a lot of friends,” Alvarez, 22, said. He now works at Positive Alternatives for Youth (PAY), the same Panorama City-based gang intervention agency where he once went to perform court-ordered community service as a 16-year-old.

Alvarez, who plans to attend CSUN this summer as an art major, said getting at-risk youth to reject a life of crime requires erasing years of brainwashing that has left them feeling invincible and unaccountable.

Los Angeles is estimated to have more than 700 gangs with nearly 40,000 members. Over the last couple of decades, community groups, law enforcement agencies and public officials have offered different ways to deal with increasingly violent gang activity.

With the distinction of being the gang capital of the nation, Los Angeles’ law enforcement agencies and public officials have endorsed gang injunctions, which use civil law to prosecute a gang’s criminal behavior.

Court ordered gang injunctions prohibit reputed gang members from associating with one another within a certain designated “safety zone”, often impose a nightly curfew and restrict individuals from possessing gang paraphernalia. In some instances they bar the use of cell phones. Any violation of the court order is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months jail time and/or a fine.

Individuals named in the injunction are often served notice by S.W.A.T. teams.

“It’s a means for officers to go and bust up illegal activity,” said Los Angeles City Attorney spokesperson Frank Mateljan.

Mateljan said convincing a judge to grant a civil injunction against a gang is a time-consuming process that involves local prosecutors and law enforcement agencies working closely together.

First, they must compile substantial evidence that demonstrates the criminal activity of reputed gang members within a specific area can be reduced by arresting them for civil violations. He said a 1997 California Supreme Court ruling upheld the constitutionality of targeting gangs with public nuisance laws, which are civil and not criminal statutes.

Los Angeles has more than 20 injunctions in place against gangs. Currently there are four in the San Fernando Valley that target the gangs: “Pacoima Project Boys”, “Langdon Street”, and “Blythe Street”, among others. While many have credited the use of gang injunctions as an innovative measure to decrease gang violence, others have criticized injunctions for their limitations.

At a statewide conference on gang injunctions held in April at Oxnard Community College, attorney Gabriella Navarro-Busch told a small audience about the legal problems that injunctions present to an individual’s constitutional rights.

She said that once a group’s presence is considered to be a public nuisance by the courts, police no longer need any probable cause to question or detain individuals. During the event, other lawyers on the legal panel discussion also claimed gang injunctions were an affront to an individual’s civil liberties that removed their presumption of innocence.

“It’s a lazy police enforcement tool,” Navarro-Busch said. “You can forget about probable cause when (the police) want to make an arrest.”

Navarro-Busch is part of a legal team petitioning a Ventura County Superior Court judge to force prosecutors, who authored the city of Oxnard’s first gang injunction, to include provisions allowing alleged gang members to be removed from the injunction if they meet certain conditions.

In its current form, she said, the district attorney’s injunction against the Colonia Chiques gang is too punitive and does not give individuals who have made realistic strides and renounced the gang life a chance to opt out and no longer be subjected to its provisions.

Navarro-Busch said fighting the civil gang injunction is a “lopsided court battle” because the local district attorney’s office and police department had previously presented the public with graphic images that served “to send that fear home.”

An often cited 2000 study on 14 gang injunctions in the Los Angeles area by Jeffrey Grogger, a public policy professor at UCLA, reported that the injunctions had reduced gang related crimes in their respective safety zones by 5-10 percent.

Mateljan, with the L.A. city attorney’s office, said the public officials do not expect injunctions by themselves to stop all gang related activity. He said their office has several at-risk youth programs to make sure people don’t join gangs in the first place.

“We have not met a gang member that wasn’t a truant first,” Mateljan said. “So we target truants (that are) at an age where we find gangs recruiting.”

Jennifer Roman, director of Mentoring to Overcome Struggles And Inspire Change (MOSAIC), a work-study program on campus that provides mentoring and tutoring for at-risk youth, said police have an incentive to classify certain crimes as gang-related in order to secure more resources.

“It’s interesting how police (label) a gang function,” Roman said. “Two or more people together” is often enough probable cause to make “mass arrests.”

Roman also said that some strategies that gang prevention and intervention specialists use are often at odds with police tactics.

She said law enforcement tends to target a troubled community with an increased presence and a “zero tolerance” attitude that can sometimes backfire with at-risk youth.

“Utilizing the youth culture is an effective tool that is overlooked by adults,” Roman said.

She said the agencies, such as PAY, that are partnered with MOSIAC provide at-risk youth with a safe environment and often use music, art and dance to help move them beyond the mindset and the fantasy of living and dying as a soldier for their gang.

Opponents of gang injunctions do not question their potential to lower crime. Rather they question the severity of some of the injunction’s provisions.

Michael Risher, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said in some instances an injunction does not allow an individual to contest in court the evidence that has been compiled against them by prosecutors.

He said some injunctions have different provisions because some judges have refused to accept the prosecutor’s presentation of the facts against alleged gang members.

Risher said the ACLU recently filed an appeal against a gang injunction in Sacramento that argues their clients should be given the right to contest in court.

George Tita, a criminology professor at University of California, Irvine, said prosecutors are not interested in answering the same kinds of questions that explain the underlying circumstances surrounding gang violence.

“There is no incentive for them to look at the characteristics of gang-on-gang violence,” Tita said via e-mail.

He said that injunctions are not a comprehensive solution for solving gang related crime.

The one thing everyone concedes is needed to stem gang recruitment and activity is resources.

When Alvarez showed up at PAY over six years ago, he said it took a while for his rebellious streak to subside and the youth organizer’s advice to take hold.

Through the agency he said he has learned that sometimes a second chance is all that a person needs. Alvarez said PAY has found him work doing graffiti for music videos that lets him indulge in his old fantasy life

“But, we’re no longer just taggers, we’re artists, we’re muralists,” Alvarez said. “Plus, the pay helps me a lot too.”

Julio Morales can be reached at f

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