The List That Can Take Your Life

The List That Can Take Your Life

SEPTEMBER 27, 2016

Today, in California, you can be placed on a secret list, with life-threatening implications, and never even know your name was added. The only reason I found out about this hidden database, called CalGang, is because being on the list nearly landed me in prison for life less than a year ago.

Right now, a bill to address some of the problems with CalGang and other shared gang databases, AB 2298, is sitting on the governor’s desk.  Both the Senate and Assembly have passed it, and Governor Jerry Brown has until this Friday, Sept. 30, to sign or veto it.  You can take action to urge Governor Brown to sign it so that people like me no longer have to fear the consequences of erroneously being labeled a gang member.

More than 200,000 Californians are currently listed on CalGang, a majority of whom are young people of color. Just the color of your shirt or the street on which you live can prompt a law enforcement agent to add your name to the list. You never have to commit a crime to be designated as being a gang member, and you may never know you are on CalGang.

As a young Black man raised in the historically Black and economically ignored community of Lincoln Park in San Diego, I’ve had over 50 encounters with local police, despite having no criminal record.

In the summer of 2014, I was one of over a dozen Black men from my community who were picked up and thrown into jail on charges of conspiracy to commit nine shootings I knew nothing about. It was then that I found out that the San Diego Police Department had designated me as a member of a local gang when I was 18 years old.

Under California’s gang conspiracy law, anyone designated as a gang member can be held liable for a crime allegedly committed by the gang, even if they had no knowledge of the crime. Individuals who have been designated as being gang members are also subject to harsher sentences through enhancements.

Despite having no knowledge of the crimes I was charged for—a fact District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis acknowledged in court—I was facing a sentence of 56-years-to-life because my name was in the CalGang database.

From jail, we fought our case for seven months. During my trial, the detective investigating the unresolved shootings testified that he had the legal right to charge and incarcerate all 543 individuals in my neighborhood who’d been designated as being gang members.

The judge in the case eventually dismissed the charges, but those seven months of being locked up turned my life upside down. I was ripped away from my loved ones, I lost my home, my education was cut short, and I was financially ruined. All for being on a list I knew nothing about.

The fact that such a thing can happen to someone like me has caught the attention of constitutional attorneys, elected officials, and policy experts from across the country. In California, AB 2298, legislation sponsored by Assembly Member Shirley Weber, is aiming to shed light on these secretive, Orwellian databases.

The bill would create a critically important system of accountability for how people are added to a gang database, as well as transparency for people already designated as being gang members. It would also allow individuals to advocate on their own behalf before a law enforcement agency may designate them as being a gang member.

This legislation is crucial, particularly for communities of color. Through a public records act request submitted this year by my community organization, Justice4SD33, with the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, we discovered that Blacks and Latinos are severely overrepresented in CalGang. Though Blacks and Latinos make up approximately 5.5 percent and 33 percent of San Diego County, respectively, combined they account for 87 percent of those listed in the gang database.

A recent, first-ever audit of shared gang databases by the California State Auditor revealed a similar racial disparity—nearly 20 percent of the people in the CalGang database are African-American and 66 percent are Latino, while only 6.6 percent of Californians are African-Americans and just 38.1 percent are Latino.

The audit further exposed that shared gang databases—including CalGang—are overly broad, inaccurate, fail to protect people’s privacy, and are out of compliance with state law and federal regulations. The audit found that 42 individuals under one year of age were added to the CalGang database; and 28 of those entered as babies were designated as “admitted gang members.”

In addition, the audit found more than 600 people who were still in the database even though their names should have been purged from it. Although federal regulations require that people be removed from the database after five years, some records were not scheduled to be removed for more than 100 years.

CalGang is reminiscent of our country’s disturbing history of creating legal systems of discrimination. In the same vein of the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, CalGang is a legal structure to criminalize poor people of color.

You can take action TODAY to support the bill by:

Your skin color and zip code should not predetermine your future in our legal system. By signing this bill into law, Governor Brown can help ensure that the next generation is not thrown away because of who they are and where they live.

Aaron Harvey is a co-founder of Justice4SD33.