Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The STEP Act- One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


     Today’s street gangs are notorious for discomforting their communities with homicides, narcotics distribution, gun possessions, and other serious criminal behavior.  In an attempt to dismantle criminal gang activity, California enacted The Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP) in 1988 and amended it in 2000 with Proposition 21 (Orange County DA, pg 1).  The STEP Act creates harsher punishments for those involved in gang activity.  Depending on the severity of the underlying felony, an additional 2-10 years is added for those who actively participate in a gang with knowledge that the gang engages in patterns of criminal behavior, and promotes or assists criminal conduct for a member of the gang.  An additional and consecutive term of 10 years, 20 years, or 25 years to life in state prison will be added in the event that a firearm is used in certain felonies such as a robbery or carjacking; all accomplices will also be held liable for the usage of the firearm.  Sentences are based on whether the firearm was discharged, and if the use of the firearm resulted in injury (Orange County CA, pg 1).  The STEP Act has produced a number of consequences in California such as prison overcrowding, a lack of reduction in criminal gang activity, and targeting youth who have a higher probability of reforming. 

     The STEP Act has contributed to the escalating problems of prison overcrowding in California.  The current prison population in California is 143,435, and at one point was nearly double the number that buildings were designed to hold (Biskupic, pg 1).  It is by no means inexpensive to incarcerate the number of inmates California holds.  In 2008-2009, California spent an average of 47,000 dollars to incarcerate one inmate (Legislative Analyst Office, pg 1).  Without the STEP Act, California would have a surplus of money that could be put into education, roads, levees, or other important issues.  Aside from cost, prison overcrowding has created unsafe conditions for inmates.  In May of 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that California has violated the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment due to a failure to produce minimal care to prisoners with serious medical and mental health problems (Liptak, pg 1).  The STEP Act has created longer prison sentences without contemplating the effects it has on the safety of prisoners.  In California an inmate needlessly dies every 6-7 days due to unconstitutional practices (Liptak, pg 1).  While these are serious offenders, they still deserve professional care.  The STEP Act has setback California’s ability to properly incarcerate prisoners.        
     
     The STEP Act contributes to the problems that come with prison overcrowding, but it also raises the question of whether the STEP Act actually reduces criminal gang activity in California.  Even with the STEP Act, gangs still contribute to 80 percent of the crime in certain areas (FBI Gang Threat Assessment, pg 8).  Gang violence in California has increased tremendously in urban areas like San Diego with a 56 percent increase from 2006-2007, and Salinas with a 125 percent increase in gang related homicide from 2006-2007 (FBI Gang Threat Assessment, pg 9).  The STEP Act is not effectively delivering the message to gang members.  A portion of the STEP Act targets gang or associated gang members who commit particular crimes with the use of a firearm, but statistics show this has no effect.  From 2002-2007, 94.3 percent of gang related homicides in California involved the use of a firearm (FBI National Gang Threat Assessment, pg 9).  Criminal gang activity has shown no sign of slowing since the STEP Act was enacted; instead percentages are rising without Californians realizing the overall affect it has on the state.                 
    
     Californians may also not realize that the STEP Act manages to target youth who have a higher probability of reforming their lives.  Juveniles account for almost 40 percent of the gang population (OJJDP, pg 1).  The STEP Act victimizes juveniles with harsh punishments even though they are more likely to reform than the adults.  The reason many youth enter a gang is because they are often outcasts and easily influenced into joining a gang to obtain a sense of belonging (Hernandez, 2011).  Juveniles are just as capable of being influenced out of gang life.  The years gang youth still have to live gives them “light at the end of the tunnel”, meaning the ability to identify the positives in reforming before it becomes too late.  Incarcerated gang youth are at a fragile point in their lives, and California must handle them carefully while still being effective because if they serve long enough sentences they will become a product of their environment.      
    
     The STEP Act has shown that not only gang or their associates are affected by harsh punishments, but the consequences have migrated into California’s problems ranging from prison overcrowding, a lack of reduction in criminal gang activity, and targeting youth who have the ability to change.  The future of reducing criminal gang activity relies on reducing the number of gang members.  Individuals, especially youth, gravitate towards gangs because gangs fulfill a need of belonging and acceptance.  Gang members tend to be less committed to school, less attached to parents, and experience more stressful events (Hernandez, 2011).  Programs need to be designed to attack youth who meet these characteristics so that they have alternatives to gang life.  A good start would be with implementing more after school programs, free tutoring, counseling, or whatever it takes to get youth more involved in school, family, and having a sense of belonging.  If the number in gang members can be reduced, criminal gang activity will reduce.  The STEP Act does not successfully aim at reducing criminal gang activity; instead, it has put California one step forward and two steps back by implementing harsh punishments.        


References:
1.  Liptak, Adam. "Justices, 5-4, Tell California to Cut Prisoner Population." New
     York Times. N.p., 23 May 2011. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.
     <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/us/24scotus.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all>.
2.  "Violent Crimes-Law." Office of the District Attorney-Orange County . N.p.,
     2011. Web. 18 Sept. 2011. <http://orangecountyda.com/home/
     index.asp?page=98>.
3.  Biskupic, Joan. "Supreme Court stands firm on prison crowding." USA Today. N.p.,
     25 May 2011. Web. 19 Sept. 2011. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/
     washington/judicial/2011-05-24-Supreme-court-prisons_n.htm>.
4.  "Criminal Justice and Judiciary How much does it cost to incarcerate an inmate?"
     Legislative Analyst Office. N.p., 2009. Web. 17 Sept. 2011.
     <http://www.lao.ca.gov/laoapp/laomenus/sections/crim_justice/
     6_cj_inmatecost.aspx?catid=3>.
5.  "National Youth Gang Survey Analysis." OJJDP. N.p., 2007. Web. 17 Sept. 2011.
     <http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Survey-Analysis/Demographics>.
6.  "2009 National Gang Threat Assessment." FBI. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2011.
     <http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/
     national-gang-threat-assessment-2009-pdf>.
7.  Professor James Hernandez. "Class Notes; Gangs and Threat Groups in America."
     Notes. 2011. Print.

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