Deadly shootings and drug dealing are just two of the problems that gangs bring to our cities, and local officials are looking for new ways to confront the gang problem. In some locales, law enforcement has decided to take the battle into a new field, the courtroom, by filing lawsuits against gang members in an attempt to stop their criminal activity. Now, when an individual is picked up for a crime and identified as being affiliated with a gang, officials are attempting to file lawsuits that bar that person from standing in a certain area or even sitting in his or her car in an area that is associated with gang activity.
A Seattle Times article highlighted two cities that are in the forefront of this approach: Fort Worth, TX, and San Francisco, CA. Both cities have filed lawsuits against gang members that request that the courts prohibit such things as congregating together on street corners and cars in certain areas. The idea behind barring these activities is to stop the escalation of crime that often occurs when gang members congregate. Additionally, this would allow police a legal reason to stop and question gang members.
Preventative approaches such as this are not new. According to the article, similar lawsuits were first filed in the 1980s against the Playboy Gangster Crips, and covered the entire city of Los Angeles. Since then however, cities have limited their lawsuits to specific gangs or gang members. This appears not only to have reduced crime, but also to have reduced opposition to the lawsuits.
Although, this approach may appear proactive in nature, the legal community must be aware of its possible ramifications.
For instance, how will individuals be targeted? Essentially, congregating in cars or in public areas is an otherwise lawful activity. How will police distinguish between innocent youth who are just “hanging out” and those who are gathering for law-breaking purposes? The new approach could potentially and unfairly target some youth and trample on their rights. Furthermore, if injunctions like these are put in place, what would stop some gang members from simply moving their activities outside the covered zone? If the life of a gang member involves maneuvering around the law, I would presume that civil injunctions would not deter many from continuing their gang lifestyles.
Although this approach is a great start, perhaps future approaches would do well to take it a bit further. However efficient and effectively youth continue to be incarcerated, such punishment may ultimately serve no lasting effect. I believe that the answer lies in more than just taking the “problem” off public streets and leaving gang members to fester in jail. Instead, we must design programs that specifically offer gang members the means to pursue an alternative lifestyle and ensure that these programs are supported by the community and local school system. These programs should address the very root causes that often lead youth to join gangs such as lack of familial support and social and academic development. The belief that “there is no other lifestyle” is often heard from many of those involved in gangs. It is up to the community and legal system to show them that there is.