The need to shed light on gang databases and fight the criminalization of people of color

NILC and other orgs work to shed light on gang databases and fight the criminalization of people of color

THE TORCH: CONTENTSBy Shiu-Ming Cheer, NILC senior staff attorney
JULY 14, 2016

The National Immigration Law Center, along with the Youth Justice Coalition, CHIRLA, Policy Link and Urban Peace Institute, are co-sponsors of AB 2298, a California bill that would provide notification to adults who are entered into a gang database, a process for contesting that inclusion, and the ability to petition for removal from the system.

Gang databases have been used by law enforcement to criminalize people of color and immigrants, who are often targets of racial profiling. “Secret” databases like gang databases undermine fundamental values such as transparency and accountability. Adults have no way of knowing whether they are on a gang database, and no way of challenging their inclusion.

Being on a gang database leads to serious consequences such as increased probability of criminal conviction, sentence enhancements, loss of employment, and eviction from public housing. Alleged gang members are not eligible to apply for immigration relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and are considered a “priority” for deportation.

At a state Senate hearing, Juan Peña, an undocumented member of the Youth Justice Coalition, testified about his first police interrogation at age 10 at school. He described how law enforcement officers question him on a regular basis and explained that he hasn’t applied for DACA for fear of being on a gang database.

In another example of the real harms caused by gang databases, Aaron Harvey, a young black man from San Diego, was thrown into jail and faced a life sentence because his name was on a gang database. He was said to be associated with a gang that allegedly committed numerous shootings, and Harvey was charged with criminal street gang conspiracy to commit a felony even though he didn’t even live in the state when the shootings occurred. The judge in the case eventually dismissed the charges, but only after Mr. Harvey spent seven months in jail.

AB 2298 represents one step toward bringing transparency and accountability to the use of gang databases and would help address the criminalization faced by people of color simply for living in particular neighborhoods.