Being labeled a gangster could land you in prison longer, even if you're a regular criminal

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re with The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH here in Boston. Here’s a term I had not encountered before today: gang enhancement. Legal term, actually. It’s a law passed in response to the gang violence in Los Angeles, back in the 1980s. Gang enhancement allows prosecutors to stiffen the sentence for certain types of crimes, but they have to prove the crime was committed by a gang member or on behalf of a street gang. Daniel Alarcón wrote a story about this for the New York Times Magazine. He says figuring out who is a gang member and who isn’t is not always as clear-cut as it sounds.


Daniel Alarcón: You know, you might be “associating with a gang member,” but he might be your brother, or he might be the kid you went to first grade with, or the kid who lives next door. I think it’s an incredibly complicated issue, and I think that law enforcement has a very difficult task trying to separate who is and who isn’t, but they don’t always get it right.


Werman: I mean, I suppose the goal of really coming down hard on gang violence is noteworthy, but I’m just curious, I mean, what makes the gang enhancement laws so controversial?


Alarcón: Well, I mean, they’re controversial in certain communities. I wouldn’t say that the controversy has reached the mainstream conversation yet. I think the problem becomes--when these laws are used in a manner that can be seen as discriminatory. Ninety percent of the people in California prisons right now, with gang enhancements, are black or latino, and only three percent are white. And we know that there are white gangs, we know that there are a number of white gangs. It’s not a question whether there are or aren’t black or Latino gangs, or Asian gangs, or white gangs. We know they exist in every group across the state. It’s more of a question of how do prosecutors use them and when do they choose to use them? And if they aren’t being applied fairly, then that’s a concern.


Werman: Now, you got an interesting perspective on all of this from an expert named Jesse De La Cruz. Who is he and what did he show you?


Alarcón: Jesse’s a former member of Nuestra Familia, which is one of the most fearsome prison gangs in California. He spent around 30 years of his adult life in and out of California prisons and institutions. He dropped out of that life in his 40s, got an education, eventually got a doctoral degree, and now testifies in cases like these across the state of California. He pushes back against the definition of what a gang member is, and he speaks with a really unique perspective, being that he was in the life, so he has firsthand experience, and he’s also an academic with this kind of theoretical framework and this academic rigor that you need to study a phenomenon like this. And he has a very interesting story to tell, and a very sensitive look at how to distinguish between people who are pretending to be something maybe for their own safety, and people who actually are gangbangers.


Werman: Yeah, and so is his view that gang enhancement laws are really hard to enforce?


Alarcón: You know, his brother was killed by a gang member, you know? He hates gangs. He’s told me that on numerous occasions.


Werman: Even though he was a member of one.


Alarcón: Oh, of course. I mean, I think that’s probably one of the main reasons he hates gangs. Gangs are stupid, gangs ruined his life. I mean, this is not a question of defending gangs, it’s a question of making sure that kids who are not in gangs don’t get washed up and sent away for the rest of their life, and don’t have the chance that Jesse had, which was to start over, to be someone new, a productive member of society.


Werman: It’s funny, I mean, we’re talking about a word, as the title of your article suggests, “How do you define a gang member?” We’re talking about the word “gang,” and it’s a word like a lot of labels and words we’ve seen a lot this past year: “thugs,” “gangs”; gang can be used to describe these Latinos or black prison gangs. We also saw those motorcyclists in Texas, who ended up in a shooting war last month, as a gang. What do you of all these labels now?


Alarcón: You know, it’s one of those words where everyone is like, “Oh, well I know it when I see it.” The problem is in a court of law, those kinds of suppositions”¦ You know, that’s not part of the system that we purport to have in the United States. And I know from speaking with jurors--with a juror on the case that I followed--that many of her fellow jurors were saying, “Oh, he’s a gang member. I don’t care what he did. Lock him up.” And you know, it’s a very easy thing to say, and it’s a feeling I had sitting in court, looking at these young men, looking at the photos the prosecutor was showing us, looking at the cell phone and photos taken off of social media--it’s very easy to say, “You know what? Lock these kids up and throw away the key.” But that’s not a legal position. I mean, that’s not a legal argument. That’s your first impression. I think I learned how easy it is to make these suppositions without getting to know more intimately the people who are labeled this way.


Werman: I mean, as you say, it’s about how prosecutors actually use the law. At the end of the day though, we’re just talking about words. It should be fairly innocuous, and yet it’s not.


Alarcón: No, it isn’t, and prosecutors use them because it’s in the law, it’s perfectly legal, and it’s a powerful tool. It is a powerful tool. Juries see those photos and they go through the same set of emotions that I went through when I saw the photos. They say, “Wow, I don’t want that kid living next door to me. He looks scary.” And it’s a perfectly human response. The problem is that that’s not the way our criminal justice system should work.


Werman: Daniel Alarcón talking to me about his new story for the New York Times Magazine, titled, “How do you define a gang member?” Thanks a lot, Daniel.


Alarcón: Thanks, Marco. Always a pleasure.