If you were told that there’s a law on the books that lets police target people for special prosecutions on the basis of race, would you believe it? Would you believe that this law lets police designate Black and Brown kids for surveillance and harassment, and allows prosecutors to suspend many of the rules that protect the rights of white people? What if you were told that this law–the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act–is on the books in deep-blue California?
I first experienced this jaw-dropping legal framework in 2008, during my first summer job as a law student, when I watched the STEP Act lead to the conviction of a young father innocent of the crime with which he was charged. Now, in my work running Partners for Justice, a national organization dedicated to helping people walk away from the criminal legal system with their lives as unscathed as possible, it remains hard to believe that we have not yet changed these massively harmful statutes.
California’s STEP Act passed in 1988, under the guise of protecting people from the (often media-amplified) specter of gang crime. It has been used to criminalize kids of color and create a separate system of justice for them and their families. By allowing police to determine who can be designated as gang members and prosecutors to circumvent the normal rules of evidence and use crimes by friends and neighbors to infer guilt, the STEP Act effectively serves to manufacture crime on the basis of ethnicity and relationships.
A white man may face trial for robbery under rules of evidence strictly requiring a prosecutor to prove he committed the robbery–regardless of whether the prosecutor has a photo of that man at a barbecue with a cousin who was once arrested with a gun. But for a Black man facing the same charge with a gang allegation added on–even though gang databases can be wildly error-ridden, with babies listed as admitted gangsters–the cousin’s case can also be presented to the jury, along with the photo. Under the STEP Act, guilt by association, once anathema to jury trials, is allowed.
State Sen. Sydney Kamlager is now fighting to change that with Assembly Bill 333, the STEP Forward Act. Asked what motivated her to bring this bill, she told me that “AB 333 is about due process and ensuring consistency in the way gang enhancements are applied to a person’s sentence. When we see 92% of gang enhancements are used against communities of color, we have to consider how our criminal justice system is using the tools they already have at their disposal.”
The bill would stop prosecutors from claiming people are gang members simply because of the community they come from, who they’re related to, what clothing they wear or who they know. The way gang crimes are prosecuted would come closer to the way organized crime was once prosecuted: restricting the list of crimes that qualify for gang allegations, and, most important, requiring direct evidence of gang activity rather than allowing guilt by association and inference drawn from police speculation applied to innocuous Facebook posts or birthday party photos. Ultimately, it would help bring balance to the structurally racist system weighted against Black and Brown people, and take us one stride closer to equity.
Imagine being pulled out of school, denied your chance to graduate with your class, and sent to a detention facility because you kept wearing blue to school after a judge told your mom you weren’t allowed to, and she couldn’t afford to buy you new clothes. Imagine being stopped by police every single day, or lying awake at night worrying that your parole officer will send you back to prison if he finds out you’re seeing your son, because a gang injunction forbids you from seeing your loved ones. This is the reality in California, which is especially shocking given this moment of national reckoning with our racist criminal legal system.
In judging the quality of a proposed solution, no one’s input is more important than that of the people most affected by the problem. That’s why it’s significant that this bill is co-sponsored by members of such community organizations as Silicon Valley De-Bug, Pillars of the Community and the Young Women’s Freedom Center. It will soon be heard on the Assembly floor, but the work of raising awareness about this issue has fallen squarely on the shoulders of people experiencing the current enforcement injustices.
This system has created decades of harm, ruined lives, robbed young people of their futures and broken families apart. It isn’t enough to wear a Black Lives Matter shirt and call for change only when something trends on Twitter. If we as a society are going to achieve transformation, we must do the hard work of pushing our legislators to pass profoundly important legislation like the STEP Forward Act.
Emily Galvin-Almanza, a former public defender, is co-founder of Partners for Justice, email@example.com.