Let’s rethink gang-prevention tactics

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At one point, a master list was created for validating gangbangers. The Sacramento Police Department uses a list of 10 criteria, any three of which can get you confirmed as a gang member and in the system, whether you’ve committed a crime or not.

Items include clothing, tattoos, neighborhood affiliations and whether there are photos of you throwing up gang signs, even in jest. It’s basically an “act like a duck, get validated as a duck” kind of thing.

Not only does validation empower an agency to start a file on you, it also can really put a crimp in your college plans, say, if you get busted and prosecutors tack on a bunch of gang-related mandatory-sentencing enhancements that put you away for life.

“I can validate you for any three things right now,” gang-specialist Detective Bob Quinn told me during a recent seminar on gangs.

Luckily, Quinn doesn’t believe in labeling every black or Hispanic kid in a red or blue bandana, and said he’s argued against leveling gang enhancements to the county district attorney’s office on various occasions. But while Quinn and his colleagues have a more nuanced view of Sacramento’s evolving gang culture, the system doesn’t do nuance.

In October 2011, there were an estimated 10,000 validated gang members across the county. Today, law-enforcement officials say there are between 12,000 and 15,000.

Stricter enforcement policies haven’t put a dent in Sacramento’s gang problem. If anything, they’ve only deepened it. A 17 percent to 33 percent markup in the number of validated ’bangers over 20 months is failure. Using sentencing enhancements to put more reachable youth in prisons, where gang experts say the culture is most entrenched, is failure.

“We have to recognize that you have these moments where you may have the young person’s attention,” said city neighborhood-resources coordinator Khaalid Muttaqi. “One of these moments might be when you validate them.”

Muttaqi tried valiantly to get a little of the city’s Measure U tax dollars for the mayor’s gang-prevention plan, some of which would have gone into getting these kids on the cusp onto a different path. Instead, the city council voted to increase their own discretionary accounts.

For now, the system is built to chase escalating gang violence and turn the ’bangers it snags into bigger, badder criminals. It’s been a legacy to die for.