In a move seen as a victory for criminal justice reform, San Diego County Dist. Atty. Sommer Stephan said this week that her office has petitioned the court to overturn all 20 orders against street gangs in cities across the county.
Seven of the 20 gang warrants – court-approved orders restricting the movement of suspected gang members – were resolved Tuesday with the approval of the judges of the San Diego Superior Court.
For decades, the police and public prosecutor’s office have been using the orders to curb violence against gangs. In some cases, the restrictions on orders made it difficult for those who had passed this life to move on. For years, critics have said that lifelong injunctions hamper the ability of people who leave their gang days to get jobs and housing. Some said the orders are aimed at color communities.
“As I listened to the communities we serve, I heard concerns about the violence and harm that criminal gangs are causing, but also about families looking for more healthy re-entry opportunities for those who have changed their lives.” said Stephan in a statement.
Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a member of the gang prevention and intervention commission in San Diego that recommended the city end the restraints in 2019, said community members had set to work to make the change happen.
“While removing gang warrants from our local criminal justice system is a victory to be celebrated, elected officials who have opposed this rigorous reform for over five years should not obliterate the work of community advocates and people of skin color and color reforms too to score political points, ”said Jones-Wright.
About 800 people identified by law enforcement as documented gang members have been exposed to the injunctions over the years. The first order in the county was issued in 1997. The 20 injunctions were directed against 12 street gangs in six cities: San Diego, Escondido, Oceanside, Vista, San Marcos and National City. The order prohibits people named in the rulings from hanging out with other gang members, flashing gang signs, or wearing clothing associated with gangs in certain areas.
In recent years, prosecutors have exempted hundreds of names from the injunctions, including 332 names in 2019 and 77 as recently as December. The City of San Diego law firm removed 51 names from injunctions within the city limits in 2019. Police, prosecutors and judges agreed that those whose names were removed no longer posed a threat to the public.
In addition, there was a process for those named in the orders to request the court to have their names removed, but many were unaware of the process and others were unsuccessful.
With the dissolution of all dispositions, all remaining names – 349 – will be deleted.
Stephan said her office worked with San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore and city police chiefs to weigh the benefits and “collateral consequences” of removing the injunctions. They found that the orders “are not effective in protecting the public from a predominantly younger group of people who commit gang crimes in our communities,” said Stephan.
She said Gore and the police chiefs supported the decision to overturn the injunctions.
“This is a positive step to ensure that all residents have the opportunity to start over,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement.
Some police officers said injunctions were no longer a valuable tool to fight gang crime. In Escondido, Police Commissioner Kevin Toth said most of the gang members listed on the city’s orders are in their late twenties or thirties and no longer active in gangs. He added that many are serving long sentences.
“The rest of the gang grew out of it,” said Toth.
He said Escondido police officers “have arrested an average of one or two gang warrants over the past few years.”
Oceanside police officers found themselves in a similar situation: they issued two restraining orders in 2018, two in 2019 and one last year, according to a department-wide memo released Tuesday by chief Fred Armijo.
“We don’t think we can rightly say that removing warrants will lead to less safe neighborhoods, although this is another tool that is no longer available to us,” the chief wrote in the memo, a spokesman said . “While this action removes one more tool that can have an impact on gang crime, I think it is more valuable to end the orders to increase trust in our community than to keep them in place.”
Stephen’s spokeswoman, Tanya Sierra, said the first court petitions were filed on March 25. In San Diego, court orders canceled two injunctions two weeks later.
“Gang orders are out of date and do not serve their supposed purpose of protecting public safety,” said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, who supported an end to the city’s orders as part of a list of proposed police reforms he announced in April.
“It’s the right thing, and it gives hundreds of San Diegans the chance to live without the fear that a stale accusation might affect their chances of getting well-paid jobs, education and housing,” said the mayor.
Councilor Monica Montgomery Steppe, chair of the council’s public safety committee, said the rulings were wrongly directed against color communities.
“The elimination of gang arrests is a necessary step in the long road to reshaping public safety and justice in law enforcement,” she said. “There are no similar orders for white supremacists or hate groups. Hence, we can clearly see how gang injunctions unfairly attack, harm, and potentially ruin the lives of innocent members of our black and brown communities. “
She thanked Jones-Wright, chairman of the Gang Prevention and Intervention Commission, and other advocates who supported the change.
After years of research, the commission officially called for an end to the rulings in San Diego in September 2019.
Hernandez writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.