Last week, the California state Senate approved a bill that would weaken the ability for prosecutors to put violent gang members behind bars.
AB 333, which was introduced by Senator Sydney K. Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) who is labeling it the The STEP Forward Act, was passed in a 25-10 vote which would do the following:
This bill would also require that the crimes committed to form a pattern of criminal gang activity have commonly benefited a criminal street gang and that the common benefit from the offenses be more than reputational, as specified. The bill would remove burglary, looting, felony vandalism, and specified personal identity fraud violations from the crimes that define a pattern of criminal gang activity. The bill would prohibit the use of the currently charged crime to prove the pattern of criminal gang activity.
The bill also states:
This bill would require, if requested by the defense in a case where a sentencing enhancement for participation in a criminal street gang is charged, that the defendant’s guilt of the underlying offense first be proved and that a further proceeding on the sentencing enhancement occur after a finding of guilt. The bill would require that a charge for active participation in a criminal street gang be tried separately from all other counts that do not otherwise require gang evidence as an element of the crime.
This bill, instead, would define “criminal street gang” as an ongoing, organized organization or group of 3 or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of one or more of the enumerated criminal acts, having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, and whose members collectively engage in, or have engaged in, a pattern of criminal gang activity.
The California District Attorney’s Association (CDAA) issued a statement on Sept. 3 calling the legislation “Dangerous” and would protect gang member while being a “bad faith move by the bills author”.
Dubbed by law enforcement opponents across California as “The Gang Member Protection Act of 2021,” Kamlager’s legislation would limit the charges that prosecutors could bring against violent criminal street gang members, the majority of whom operate in disadvantaged neighborhoods where they use violence and threats of retribution to terrorize victims and silence witnesses.
CDAA had negotiated in good faith what it believed was an agreement to amend the bill so that prosecutors did not have to prove that a gang was “organized,” in order to bring appropriate charges. Gang prosecutors across California had repeatedly advised Senator Kamlager that many violent, criminal street gangs do not operate according to any organizational structure or hierarchy. While CDAA waited in good faith to hear if an agreement had been reached, Kamlager instead took the bill up for a vote where it was approved without benefit of a full and fair debate.
“Sadly, this was a bad faith move, designed to advance this reckless legislation without giving legislators an opportunity to hear how seriously flawed it really is,” said Vern Pierson, president of CDAA. “Prosecutors and law enforcement across California are united in their view that AB 333 is little more than a gift to violent criminal street gangs. It will make our communities even more vulnerable to the predatory actions of gang members,” he added.
Some argue that punishing gang involvement did little to decrease crime while “branding young people” and its critical legislation in reducing racial disparities in sentencing.
Meanwhile, Republican Senator Brian Dahle said he voted “no” on the bill because it reduces penalties for crimes committed by gang members.
Senator Brian J Jones said California Democrats continue to make life easier for the criminals and cited AB 333 (reduces penalties for gang members, SB 300 (reduced sentences for murderers) and AB 292 (good conduct credits for violent felons). He called for a safer California and voted against all anti-public safety bills.
Senator Shannon Grove said California Democrats were furthering their “criminals first” agenda with AB 333 and the bill was a slap in the face to victims and their families.
Sept 1, 2020 Press Release
Senator Kamlager’s AB 333: STEP Forward Act, Addressing Gang Enhancements, Passes off the Senate Floor
SACRAMENTO, CA — Senator Sydney K. Kamlager’s (D – Los Angeles) bill, AB 333: The STEP Forward Act passed off the Senator Floor today. The bill passed in a vote of 25-10 and now heads to the Assembly for a concurrence vote.
Currently, gang enhancement statutes have vague definitions, weak standards of proof, and are perhaps the most racially discriminatory part of the criminal justice system: 92% of people with gang enhancements in California are people of color.
AB 333 takes the first step towards addressing the pain caused by gang enhancements. It does so by reducing the list of crimes that allow gang enhancements to be charged, prohibiting the use of the current charge as proof of a “pattern” of criminal gang activity, and separating gang allegations from underlying charges at trial.
“At the heart of AB 333 is due process,” said Senator Kamlager. “AB 333 just asks for the charges to be proven when they’re levied against someone. Right now, our system allows a shaved head, tattoos, or even the color of your grandma’s house as reason to be charged with a gang enhancement. That’s antithetical to how our judicial process should operate and I am glad we are one step closer to a fix.”
The Senate Floor vote comes after a press conference this morning, hosted by Senator Kamlager and sponsors of the bill to address current misinformation about AB 333 does and doesn’t do. Speakers such as Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, former prosecutor Yvette Mcdowell of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju joined to express their support.
In 2020, the California Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code (CCRPC) recommended limiting “gang enhancements to the most serious offenses.” The CCRPC found that “Gang enhancements are applied inconsistently and disproportionately against people of color, and fail to focus on the most dangerous, violent, and coordinated criminal activities.” criminal gang activity, and separating gang allegations from underlying charges at trial.
The bill now goes back to the Assembly for concurrence.
See the full legislative package Senator Kamlager is authoring here.
Senate District 30 ranges from Century City to South Los Angeles and takes in Culver City, Cheviot Hills, Crenshaw District, USC, downtown L.A. and a portion of Inglewood.