Cutting Through the Red Tape

Civil Lawsuits: a New Approach to Suppress Crime

February 17, 2010

By Mercedes Sanchez, H2010

Gang crime and violence is gradually becoming a pressing problem in our society. Who is to blame for such a rapid increase? And how can our justice system eliminate this problem? The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are more than 800,000 gang members and 30,000 gangs in the United States. In response to the fast proliferation of gangs, law enforcement has been exploring new ways to suppress gangs and their violence. Because traditional means of combating street gangs have not been enough, law enforcement has looked for alternative tools such as civil gang injunctions. But, is this truly the solution to our problems?

Civil gang injunctions are court-issued restraining orders that prohibit named gang members from participating in a variety of specified activities. The gang injunction is filed by district or city attorneys under the law of public nuisance, which is meant to protect the greater good of the community by suppressing minor offenses. Under the assumption that street gangs’ presence interfere with the rights of the community, gang injunctions become protective orders for those neighborhoods infested with such crimes. The nuisance law is applied to gangs because as an organization, its’ members must be held accountable for their actions. Nonetheless, the way injunctions are currently in place allows law enforcement to imprison gang members for suspicious activities rather than actual crimes.

Civil gang injunctions vary throughout districts, cities, and states. The injunction is drafted to address the specific problems a neighborhood is facing and it is up to the prosecutors to decide what they want to include on the injunction. Prosecutors must decide the area covered by the injunction, known as the safety zone, as well as the individuals who will be included on the injunction. Once the injunction is in place, it can be reinitiated, modified, expanded, and names can be added to ensure the injunction fits the problem area.

Injunctions allow judges to prohibit enjoined individuals from engaging in activities that would otherwise be legal. For example, by law, gang members who are enjoined could potentially be prohibited from associating with any other known gang members, required to comply with curfew hours, banned from local restaurants or bars, or restricted from being around drugs and alcohol. These activities are restricted because they are thought to facilitate the performance of criminal activities; therefore, the law is willing to create injunctions that can result in the arrest of people in the absence of a crime – for example, simply for having lunch with a friend in a banned establishment.

In order to be bound by the injunction and its terms, a gang member must be made aware that the injunction has been enacted. This notification is imperative, because violating the injunction is treated as criminal contempt of court, a Class A misdemeanor, which under the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code 125.066, can result in maximum fine of $10,000 and/or confinement in jail for up to 30 days.

Gang injunctions are seen as an innovative way to disrupt everyday gang activities due to their suppression and preventive effects. Currently, gang injunctions are taking a voracious suppression approach, basically incarcerating as many criminals, gang members, and even potential gang members as possible in an effort to prevent possible future crimes. However, gang injunctions are not the sole solution to eradicate gangs. Gangs are multifaceted, with various layers of involvement, and in order to truly hinder their criminal activities, gangs must be attacked from different angles. It is necessary to combat the root of the problem – the reason that individuals are joining gangs – as well as reform those who are criminally active. Regulatory measures should be in place to ensure a fair and effective way of using this tool. A balance must be applied. In other words, a compromise amongst all services needs to be in place, so that law enforcement cannot be in a position to be given the opportunity to abuse their power by depriving gang members’ everyday civil liberties; however, at the same time, they should have enough tools to maintain order and safety in the community.

More than Just a Bus Ride

February 16, 2010

By Adeel Iqbal, SF2010

It was 12:45, and I had 30 minutes to get to San Francisco General Hospital & Trauma Center, where San Francisco City Hall Fellows’ seminar for the week was being hosted. I Googled the address, and pasted it into 511.org – a free, one-stop phone and web source for traffic and transit in the Bay Area region: I wanted to know the quickest way via public transport to get to the hospital.

From City Hall, the 511 web application directed me to take the MUNI 9, so I made my way to the nearest bus stop off Market Street. Another Fellow had hopped on the same bus a couple stops earlier and we began chatting about what we had been up to that morning as soon as we saw one another. Within a few stops, we were forced to speak a bit louder – noise and the number of people on the bus had quickly elevated as we got closer to our destination. Little did we know that more than half of our fellow riders would be getting off with us.

As soon as the MUNI 9 stopped on Potrero Avenue at 22nd street, 70 percent of passengers trickled out, and all of them walked to the hospital entrance. Watching this pack of people walk in a single file line for their appointments was our first lesson about the importance of SFGH – owned and operated by the City and County of San Francisco, Department of Public Health – to the city and its residents.

Our subsequent discussions with some of the hospital’s leading doctors and nurses and tour with the Chief of Medical Staff would only add to our understanding. We would learn that SFGH is the only Trauma Center (Level 1) in San Francisco. That it provides the only Psychiatric Emergency Services in the city. That it takes 30 percent of all ambulance traffic in the city. That more than 60 percent of its patients are uninsured or covered by Medi-Cal (as compared to approximately 20 percent citywide). And that it is where each of us and our families would go for treatment if injured in a natural disaster in the city.

As I saw and heard about the populations served by SFGH and learned about the innovative programs developed by the hospital to address San Francisco residents’ diverse needs, I began to consider the impacts of not having SFGH in San Francisco. How would the gap be filled? What alternatives would the city’s poor and uninsured have? If a natural disaster struck and hundreds of thousands of people were injured, where would they go?

No doubt, our visit further opened my eyes to the pertinence of solid public health services and medical infrastructure within a municipality. I was inspired by the level of planning conducted by the city government to address unique needs of residents and visitors. And from the start of my trip when I turned to 511, each experience of the day helped me to better appreciate everything our cities do for us – much of which we rarely even stop to consider.

At-Risk Teen Turns Life Around Thanks to City Government: a True Story

February 05, 2010

by Mercedes Sanchez, H2010

Imagine…you are a 16 year old kid who wakes up to find your best friend dead next to you. The previous night you were both at your house playing video games, smoking weed, and taking Xanax—a common drug among teenagers.

How would you feel?

Looking back, you might remember all the good times you had growing up; you had been best friends since you were 8 years old. You might think about the time when you were in elementary school and he defended you from the bully who was picking on you. Or the endless hours you two spent playing basketball at the YMCA down the street from your house. You might think about his family, and how every time you would visit they welcomed you into their house. You might remember your plans for the future, how you were both going to conquer the world together. You were going to be best friends forever.

Now imagine this. Today is his funeral, and your friend’s mom has forbidden you from attending the service. You feel guilty about his death, you feel like it should have been you instead. You have had sleepovers and done drugs many times, what went wrong this time? The weeks that followed the burial you didn’t care about anything. The pain and guilt keeps intensifying. It feels as if life has no meaning for you anymore.

After that, things just keep going downhill; your attendance at school is so bad that you have to repeat the 9th grade. The abuse of alcohol and drugs keeps getting worse. You find yourself hanging out with a pretty rough crowd. At home, your mom’s never there because she is always working trying to make ends meet for you and your little brother. You are hurt, depressed, devastated, and completely distraught.

One day, you decide to finally go to class and during lunch you see that counselor, from the Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office, who is often at school during lunch time. Some of your friends talk to him all the time, so you know what he does. In the past he helped some of your friends with tattoo removal, found jobs for a couple more, sent some to drug and alcohol rehab centers, and others to credit recovery schools. He knew your best friend and he was aware of your situation.

Now imagine that this outreach worker became a dependable person in your life. For two months straight he was there to talk to you. He always listened to you and did not try to impose his ideas on you. Little by little, he was able to earn your trust and helped you realize you were not constructively coping with your situation. He was able to help you receive grief counseling and set up everything for you to be placed in an in-patient treatment facility for 120 days. While in treatment you were able to attend school and catch up with your credits.

This story is real. It is simply one of the many success stories in the Houston Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office, where I am spending my Fellowship. We know the journey does not end just because we offer assistance; there will be hard times ahead, because of the influences of others. However, this client – like many others – now knows that he is not alone. He knows to contact his trusted counselor if times get hard. Because our counselors go out to the local schools and spend time with at-risk youth on their own turf, they are always available to help any client, even those who have completed their programs or have initially rejected help.

This is why city government matters: when this kid had no one to turn to, a counselor from the Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office was able to get through to him and direct him to the services that he needed to put his life back in the right track. These services help deter young people from becoming involved in violent gangs and committing crimes. It is the purpose of government to help its citizens and the Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office serves that function everyday.

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