Minorities make up bulk of defendants in gang cases, court review finds
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Rachel Dissell and John Caniglia
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Since criminal gang laws were enacted in Ohio nearly a decade ago, mostly minorities have been prosecuted using the laws.
At a community picnic put on by the parents of teens arrested in the LA Gunnaz case, many family members called enforcement of the gang laws racists. Others went further, calling it genocidal.
A review of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court indictments and convictions going back to 2000 did not reveal a single non-minority charged with a gang crime.
Local federal officials could not recall a case where a non-minority was charged under gang laws.
Juvenile officials could not provide numbers but say a few non-minorities have been prosecuted.
The Ohio legislature passed a law in 1999 that focused on youths using signs and symbols to determine whether they formed a gang. It also allowed judges to sentence people convicted of the gang charge to as much as eight years extra in prison.
Authorities, including federal agent Jean-Marc Behar, who investigated the recent LA Gunnaz case, said they make cases based on evidence, not race.
Robert Walker, a former supervisor with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and a national gang expert, said it is simple to determine whether a gang exists: They have a name, use symbols, wear specific clothes, use coded signs or hand gestures and commit crimes.
Nastassia Walsh, a researcher with the Justice Policy Institute, said in surveys, youth report gang involvement at nearly the same rate across all the races. But law-enforcement action against gangs heavily skews toward minorities.
She said that may be because certain styles likened to gangs have become part of minority culture. "The police are being overly broad in picking up these kids."
The laws themselves are flawed, she said.
"They could pertain to football players, or teams or clubs," she said. "I don't have a good definition of a gang, the government doesn't have a good definition. They just pick up people that play the part and that's usually people of color."
Walker, the gang expert, said as many as 83 percent of the gangs nationwide are either black or Hispanic, and refused to believe that race is an issue.