Fighting for kids, against gangs in Long Beach

(Part 3 of a three-part series on gangs in Long Beach)
by Doug Haubert
Long Beach City Prosecutor

Over the past two weeks I have written about the gang problems that are endemic to Long Beach and have plagued our city for years. This is the third part of my three-part report on where we stand in our battle with street gangs.
While the gang problem is growing in some communities (a 40-percent national growth in gang members over the last three years, according to FBI statistics), Long Beach is making momentous progress. Last year, LBPD announced that gang murders and gang-related shootings dropped 53.8 percent and 13.5 percent, respectively.
But we have many miles yet to go.
I told readers the stories of two gang members who made headlines in 2011. Bryan Soriano-Gutierrez, an active gang member– and just 18 years old– was shot multiple times and left to die on a central Long Beach sidewalk around midnight on one August night. Soriano-Gutierrez was murdered four weeks after I met him while I was on a ride-along with LBPD.
The same day Soriano-Gutierrez was killed, in a courtroom in downtown Long Beach, jury selection began in the murder trial of Tom Vinson, the gang member accused of killing high-school student Melody Ross. That jury found Vinson, 18, guilty of murdering Ross. Vinson, who claimed he was aiming at members of a competing Long Beach gang, was sentenced last month to spend the next 155 years in prison.
These personal stories have resonated powerfully with people. Gang life kills real people. There are two common fates of those who join a criminal street gang: death on the streets, or life in prison. These fates are sadly and poignantly illustrated by retelling the stories of Vinson and Soriano-Gutierrez.
My office does not prosecute murder cases, but we have a significant role in fighting gangs by initiating gang injunctions that prohibit certain “public nuisance” activity associated with gangs. Working closely with LBPD, my office has handled over 200 gang prosecutions in the past 18 months, directing our efforts at the most active and dangerous gang members. FBI statistics say gangs are responsible for about half of all violent crimes in most jurisdictions, and up to 90 percent in some cities, so targeting gangs is an efficient use of resources.
The fight against gangs does not stop there, however. That is only the beginning. Police and prosecutors need to keep looking at ways to stop gangs from their most destructive goal– the recruitment of kids.
My office launched an initiative aimed at truancy prevention because gangs recruit kids who are not in school. Some studies suggest the primary age for getting “jumped” into street gangs is 11 to 15 years. Gangs, especially in neighborhoods where a gang presence has existed for multiple generations, prey on truants and dropouts.
One study estimates 80 percent of gang members are school dropouts. Of the most active gang members in Long Beach, I am confident well over 80 percent of them dropped out of school. Vinson and Soriano-Gutierrez almost certainly fall into this group.
Keeping kids in school not only keeps them off the streets, but it makes it harder for gangs to recruit them. It also gives kids the possibility of a future, a future that does not include death on the streets or life in prison.
More and more studies are showing a strong correlation between teenage truancy and juvenile delinquency, and these studies are compelling. As many as 75 percent of all truant high-school students will eventually drop out of school. In California, a staggering three-fourths of all prison inmates are high-school dropouts.
The California Department of Education identified truancy as “the most powerful predictor of juvenile delinquent behavior.” The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that truancy correlates with substance abuse, criminal activity, and gang involvement. For many juveniles, all three of these things– substance abuse, criminal activity, and gang involvement– are entirely interrelated.
If that was not enough reason to focus on keeping kids in schools, studies also suggest dropouts are more likely to become the victims of violent crimes. In San Francisco, a 2010 study looked at murder victims under the age of 25 and found that 94 percent of them were high-school dropouts. That means kids who drop out of school are not just more likely to commit crime, but they are statistically at higher risk to be found on the business end of a loaded gun.
My three-part column on fighting gang violence has come to an end. I wrote this to remind all Long Beach residents that gangs are a community problem, not just a problem affecting a few areas. This is high-stakes business. If you think for a moment that gang members only kill other gang members, just remember the tragic death of Melody Ross.
The Gang Life does not need to perpetuate itself. Indeed, there is hope, and police and prosecutors, working with school officials and community-based organizations, have come a long way. We still have a long way to go. We need to keep our targets set on the most active gang members through gang injunctions, while keeping kids in school and out of gangs through truancy programs. One day at a time, one child at a time.
This strategy is not exciting, nor will it yield big headlines. However, when I read the headlines created in 2011 by the murder of Bryan Soriano-Gutierrez, or the murder conviction of Tom Vinson for killing of Ms. Ross, the most important headlines are ones I am seeking to prevent.

Comments may be sent to prosecutor@longbeach.gov.

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