Nearly 33,000 juveniles arrested over the last two decades have been labeled by Chicago police as gang members, the Chicago Tribune reports. The records, released as a result of an open records fight by the Tribune, provide the first look at gang data kept by the police department for those 17 or younger, most of whom were African-Americans and Hispanics from historically violent neighborhoods. At the time of their arrest, 13 of the juveniles were just 10 years old. About 60 were 11. More than 300 were 12. Experts cautioned that labeling juveniles as gang members can create a stigma that causes lifelong problems yet serves little purpose for police.
The police department defends its gang databases, saying they remain an important tool in fighting what drives much of Chicago’s violence. The department has promised reforms in how people end up listed as gang members and in how they can remove their names. The practice of listing gang members has led to an ongoing audit by the city’s Office of Inspector General, a federal lawsuit against the city and a proposed city ordinance to limit its impact. Critics and experts say that the gang labels are often too easily attached, racially skewed and out of date, yet the harm can be lasting when the Police Department shares flawed gang intelligence with other law enforcement agencies such as immigration officials. It can also be a damaging label during criminal investigations or at sentencings. Stephanie Kollmann of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law said, “It is appalling to contemplate the ways in which the safety of underage youth may be jeopardized due to police records … created without public accountability or oversight.”