What Is Considered a Gang?


Characteristics of a Gang

About 33,000 violent street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs remain criminally active in the US. Contrary to popular belief, many of these gangs are sophisticated and well-organized, according to the FBI. With this in mind, many gangs in the US use violence to gain control and power over profitable opportunities through crimes like robbery, drug and weapons trafficking, prostitution and human trafficking, and fraud.

Street gang membership varies by number, racial and ethnic composition, and structure. However, authorities are highly vigilant for large national street gangs because they tend to smuggle, produce, transport, and distribute large amounts of illegal drugs through extreme violence, making them a strong threat to homeland security.

Although gang structures vary, they typically include core and leaders, associates or regulars, peripheral or fringe, and “wannabees” or recruits. The core members usually determine the nature and severity of gang activity and tend to get involved in more criminal activities than fringe members.

Other characteristics of criminal street gangs are their development and maintenance of elements like manifestos, constitutions, and codes of conduct to outline the structure and rules for initiation and advancement within the gang. To differentiate themselves from the secret and discreet gangs, street gang members use intimidation tactics and insignia.

What Makes a Gang a Gang?

State and federal governments generally define gangs the same, although, there are slight differences. The federal definition of a “gang” is as follows:

  • An association of 3 or more individuals;
  • Whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity, which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation, frequently by employing one or more of the following: a common name, slogan, identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or another physical marking, style or color of clothing, hairstyle, hand sign or graffiti;
  • Whose purpose in part is to engage in criminal activity and which uses violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives.
  • Whose members engage in criminal activity or acts of juvenile delinquency that if committed by an adult would be crimes with the intent to enhance or preserve the association's power, reputation, or economic resources.
  • The association may also possess some of the following characteristics:
    • The members may employ rules for joining and operating within the association.
    • The members may meet on a recurring basis.
    • The association may provide physical protection of its members from others.
    • The association may seek to exercise control over a particular geographic location or region, or it may simply defend its perceived interests against rivals.
    • The association may have an identifiable structure.

With this federal definition in mind, the state of California defines “criminal street gang” as:

  • An ongoing organization, association, or group of 3 or more persons, whether formal or informal;
  • One of its primary activities is the commission of crimes;
  • Has a common identifying sign, symbol, or name;
  • Members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of definable criminal activity.

As you can see, both California state and federal governments define criminal street gangs similarly, recognizing that these groups consist of 3 or more members, use identifying signs and symbols, and engage in criminal activity.

Penalty Enhancements for Criminal Street Gangs

Individuals who are convicted of crimes in connection to criminal street gangs face enhanced penalties because of their involvement in a gang. As such, a non-gang member who commits the same crime as a gang member could face less severe penalties because they are not tied to a criminal street gang. In California, gang members could face an additional 2 to 10 years of prison time on top of the punishment for their convicted offense.

STEP Forward Act

The STEP Act as originally enacted to target crimes committed by violent, organized criminal street gangs. Although the intentions were supposed to be positive, the outcome of the STEP Act was rather striking. Prejudicial gang evidence has led to wrongful convictions, as prosecutors would simply assume people were gang members simply because of where they grew up. These patterns of assumptions have led to racially discriminatory arrests and subsequently, false convictions. In other words, the STEP act resulted in guilt by association which violates due process.

To help fix these life-altering flaws, state Sen. Sydney Kamlager proposed Assembly Bill 333, otherwise known as the STEP Forward Act. She believes this amendment will ensure due process is upheld and gang enhancements are consistently applied to defendants’ sentences. Since 92% of gang enhancements are applied to communities of color, according to Kamlager, it’s important to evaluate whether the criminal justice system is adequately using its tools for good.

That said, the STEP Forward Act would narrow the application of a gang enhancement to underlying offenses that were specifically committed on behalf of a gang, rather than apply ambiguous and broad definitions and standards of proof to these defendants’ cases. The bill would also remove burglary, looting, felony vandalism, and specified personal identity fraud violations from the crimes that define a pattern of criminal gang activity.

Accused of a Gang-Related Crime?

As you can see, the state of California is working to progress its current criminal gang statutes to ensure defendants get due process and equal treatment under the law. However, the STEP Forward Act has yet to be implemented, so it's important to protect your rights and best interests with the help of an experienced former prosecutor-turned defense attorney, such as our very own Evan Zelig. With insights into both sides of the justice system, he has the competence, relationships, and resources needed to help you resolve your charges.

Get started today by contacting us at (707) 418-5352 to schedule a consultation and learn more!

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