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.