Thirty-one states allow tougher sentences in criminal cases involving gang members, says the New York Times. In one California case given as an example, the defendants could be facing 50 years to life in prison, compared with a maximum of 15 years if they were not gang members. In California, such “gang enhancements” became law in the late 1980s, at a time when chaos and violence in some cities had reached alarming levels. The center of the crisis was Los Angeles, where there were more than 800 homicides in 1987. There were as many as 45,000 Latino and 25,000 black gang members.
About 7 percent of California's prison population, around 115,000 people, is serving extra time because of gang enhancements. Nearly half of those convicted with gang enhancements are serving an additional 10 years or more. Some California prosecutors have filed civil injunctions providing that gang members could not be seen in public together inside a “safety zone.” In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that such an injunction in Orange County was not enforceable. This spring, Oakland’s gang injunction was dropped, after years of court challenges. Similar challenges are being prepared by lawyers in northern California’s Stanislaus County, a gang center. Like gang enhancements, injunctions are based on law-enforcement designations of someone's gang status, which are themselves based on essentially subjective criteria.