How did you “choose” your friends as toddler or as a young child? Whether someone grows up in an affluent neighborhood, a middle-class neighborhood, oftentimes, children make friends in two places: their schools and their residential neighborhoods. Generally, students attend schools that service their particular neighborhoods, or schools selected by their parents. Young children spend hours with the same comrades nearly every day. The neighborhood a child grows up in is dependent on the family into which he or she is born. At such a young age, children are unable to make the decisions for themselves as to where to live or attend school. That is a decision left solely to the parents or guardians.
Growing up, I made friends with my classmates—the same people I was around week after week. In elementary school, I had no idea where life would take any of us. I did not know what profession my friends would pursue. I did not know what college they would attend. I did not know what path they would take in life. Honestly, I did not care. As an elementary school student, I did not even know what I was going to do with my own life, nor did I think about it. I was young, carefree, and oblivious to the demands of life.
During elementary school, junior high, and high school, I formed tight bonds with peers, and some of those childhood friends I still consider friends. Nowadays, I get together with them when our schedules allow. I talk on the phone with them. I am friends with them on social media. I will consider them my friends forever.
What if one of your lifelong friends goes on to make a mistake or a bad decision in life? Do you abandon him? It is fair to say that we all make mistakes in life. If we only had friends that were morally righteous every moment of their lives, we would all be lone wolves. Absolutely everyone has told a lie at some point in his or her life. Some students have cheated on tests. Other students become involved with the wrong crowd and pick up drug or alcohol habits. Some people have driving under the influence convictions on their records. Many people have violated the law in one way or another and due to sheer luck, law enforcement did not catch them so their records remain pristine.
Imagine a world where anyone was guilty of a crime or moral infraction based on a guilt-by-association theory. For instance, your best friend cheated on a test or used illegal substances; therefore, because you associate with her, you are guilty as well. Likewise, say that police arrest you unexpectedly for a crime. The police know that you and your lifelong friend spend time together. The police have looked at your Facebook page and know that you went to the movies together just a couple days ago, you had dinner together the night before that, and you went to a party with her last weekend. The authorities also see that you wished your friend happy birthday and you regularly comment on her posts. The police have arrested your friend in the past. The police do not like her. Therefore, because she is your friend, the police together with the district attorney’s office tack on additional years in custody to your conviction merely because you associate with her. Guilt by association.
This sounds outrageous, right? You would be in an uproar. People from your community would protest the injustice. Life may not be fair, but this just seems absurd, outlandish. Unfortunately, this scenario happens way more frequently than people realize. The legislature has done a tremendous job hiding such atrocities behind a phrase that ignites fear in most members of society: criminal street gangs.
When many people imagine a criminal street gang, violence comes to the forefront of their minds. Murder. Robbery. Carjacking. Assault. Drugs. Blood. Tattoos. Lawlessness. Those are just a few of the plethora of words associated with such groups. Therefore, when the law provides for sentencing enhancements when someone participates in a criminal street gang, it sounds just to the majority of the public. But, it is not.
Many people join gangs at a young age, not because they are violent criminals, but for self-protection. They were born into neighborhoods where gangs are prevalent. Everyone they know is in a gang. It is what you do for security. You also join the gang because all your family members are part of the organization. Your father, your uncle, your brother, and your nephew are all members. You hang out with these role models on a daily basis. As an adolescent, you follow in their footsteps.
Additionally, as you get older, many of your childhood friends join the gang. The boy you sat next to in English class, the boy you played basketball with on the playground, and the boy you played video games with after school all became gang members. Of course, they were not gang members when you initially met them in school or on the block. You knew them before they were associated with the gang lifestyle. Despite their personal decision to join the gang, you remained friends with them. How could you blame them for joining a gang? Everyone joins a gang.
Because your friends are now gang members, you learn the gang signs. You wear the colors of the gang to fit in with your friends. You are active on your friend’s social media pages. You are not in the gang yourself; you just have friends that are gang members. Those friendships can now add years onto any future criminal conviction.
Maybe one day you do decide to join the gang. Gang membership alone is not illegal; you are legally allowed to be a member of a criminal street gang. However, you cannot commit crimes for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang. You have known people who are serving years in prison for horrendous crimes. People you grew up with are now serving life sentences. You do not want that to be you, so while you are a passive member of the gang, you do not commit crimes with your fellow gang members. You stay out of trouble.
However, because all people make mistakes, one day you and your friend who are in the gang are walking down the street. You have a gun on your person. You have no intention on using that gun. You have no intention on committing a crime with that gun. Unfortunately, in the neighborhood you live in, you have no choice but to have a gun on your person. You must carry a firearm for self-protection. You have seen too many people hurt in front of your eyes and you do not want today to be your day to die. Your friend has no idea you have this gun on you. It truly is just for self-protection. It is better to have a gun and not need one than to not have a gun and need one.
Due to the color of your skin, the police automatically suspect you. You must be dangerous. You are stopped and frisked. The gun is found. Now, not only are you charged with carrying an unregistered firearm, but also you are not charged with gang enhancements because the officers know you that are a member of a gang and you were stopped with a gang member. Clearly, that firearm was for the benefit of the gang, the officers will proclaim. No matter how many times you try to explain yourself, no law enforcement officer or district attorney will believe you. You are merely trying to avoid trouble, they think. Little do they know, you were really telling the truth—the gun was solely for your self-protection, not for the benefit of the gang in any way.
Gang charges and enhancements are a legal way to give minorities or less educated individuals from low-income areas harsher custodial sentences. For certain individuals, the consequences of having friends from your school and your neighborhood are unduly steep. Gang charges and enhancements are thrown onto nearly everyone’s criminal case who is known in any way to associate with gang members.
Think about if additional years could be added to a college student’s criminal sentence who gets in trouble with his fraternity brothers. Think about if additional years could be added on to your sentence because you are a member of a political group. Think about if additional years could be placed onto your sentence because of the color of your skin. You would be livid. However, that is exactly what is happening when it comes to gang charges. It is time for society to step up and stop the injustice.