Testimony of Mai Fernandez
Legal and Strategic Director of the Latin American Youth Center
Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary
Bill 18-138, Bill 18-151, Bill 18-152
March 18, 2009
Good Morning Chairman Mendelson and Members of the Committee. I am testifying before you today not only as the Legal and Strategic Director for the Latin American Youth Center but as a former prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. My experience in both these roles leads me to my the belief that the civil anti-gang injunctions proposed in both Section 102 of Bill 18-138 and section 101 of Bill 18-151 will not assist in the prevention or intervention of gang related crime.
The Latin American Youth Center works with approximately 4,000 youth every year. An overwhelming number of these young people would say they are part of a gang or have some gang affiliation. A very small percentage, however, have committed gang-related crimes or at-risk of doing so.
Unfortunately, gang culture is part of the every day lives of our young people. Being part of gang is being part of an extended social group. In fact, it’s not uncommon for siblings and cousins to be part of the same gang.
Under both proposed bills, the Attorney General may obtain an order from the court enjoining a particular street gang and its members — including members who have not personally participated in criminal activity – from associating, for any reason, with other gang members.
Putting aside the obvious constitutional challenges that such legislation would face, the proposed bills miss the goal of attempting to prevent and reduce gang-related crime and violence. The reality is that, young people, gang-related or not, hang out together in groups – often times in the neighborhoods where they live. That would mean that police could spend a great deal of their time simply arresting kids that are hanging out together outside of their own homes.
Instead of preventing crime, the law, if enacted, would create a revolving door of arrests. Young people from the same gang – same family – same neighborhood would be arrested, upon release they would go back home. They would once again be among their same family and neighbors and, therefore put themselves at risk of re-arrest. Instead of stopping crime, the injunctions would simply use up the resources of the Metropolitan Police Department and the U.S. Attorney’s office.
To reduce gang crime, young people have to be engaged by the police or gang prevention professionals — not just rounded up and thrown in jail. In 2003, Columbia Heights saw a spike in gang-related murders. That crisis, created the Gang Intervention Partnership (GIP). The GIP brought together police, community organizations, school officials and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the purpose of reducing gang violence. Specially assigned and trained police officers worked with outreach workers to identify young people in gangs and engage them in activities and conversations. These ongoing relationships allowed for law enforcement to receive information that helped prevent and intervene in gang crime and violence. The program was evaluated by an outside evaluator and was found to be the reason the end of gang-related homicides for a three year period.
For a while the GIP officers were disband. In the last few months MPD has brought them back together and the community is now working to bring the GIP back up to full speed. Instead of passing legislation that that would cause much unneeded arrest this committee should look to create legislation that institutionalizes the GIP in certain District neighborhoods.
Although I am against a law that would criminalize groups of young people from associating with each other, I recognize that large numbers of youth clustered together on street corners can be threatening to the general public. To stop this, however, the answer is not to arrest them but instead to give them something productive to do. Summer is quickly approaching. Kids are going to be hanging out. We need to engage these young people in positive activities. The Omnibus Crime Act should provide for resources for such activities.
I appreciate the opportunity to discuss these issues with you and am available to answer any questions you might have.