Dismantling the Raza Youth Incarceration Machine

Making the Case to Separate Law Enforcement from Youth Services in San José

Editor's Note:

While violence and homicides have decreased in the city, San José has doubled down on attempts to incarcerate Black and Brown youth through its Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force – a machinery that continues historical racism and leads us further away from national efforts to decarcerate. The move has put our community on alert to challenge the role of law enforcement in the city’s youth services.

This spring, a clash between the community and the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force (MGPTF) erupted and challenged the role of law enforcement in youth services.

Tension filled the air at the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force Policy Team meeting at City Hall in San José, California. The building was packed by the draw of two concerning agenda items: Youth Violence & Crime Trends presented by Police Chief Eddie Garcia, and Confirmation of Hot Spot Locations presented by Mario Maciel and Israel Canjura the Division Manager and Supervisor of the MGPTF. The community showed up like never before to push back against a new attempt to criminalize Black and Raza youth.

Although Chief Garcia stated, “We recognize we cannot arrest our way out of this trend,” his presentation can be viewed as exactly that: propaganda used solely to arrest their way out of an alleged rise in violent youth crime. But the numbers don’t back up Chief Garcia’s claim of an increase in youth crime. According to a recent report by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the Department of Juvenile Justice’s population has declined by 93% since 1996. Between 1980 and 2016, the arrest rate dropped 84 percent for juveniles according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California report. Yet despite the decrease, some cities and counties have committed tremendous amounts of resources to “lock em up” approaches. According to a recent review by the San Francisco Chronicle, in Santa Clara County, the annual cost to hold a young person at juvenile hall rose from $187,000 in 2011 to $514,000 last year. 

Because of the staggering decrease of juvenile crime, and the need for a new approach to youth development, community members questioned Chief Garcia’s entire presentation.

Three emerging “Gang Hotspots” -- communities where the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force deem to be in need of law enforcement suppression and contact -- were supposed to be confirmed that night, but there were so many community members concerned with Chief Garcia’s presentation, that the Policy Team of the MGPTF never got to discussing the expansion of Gang Hotspots.

How the Criminalization Machine Works

When discussing this conflict, we must first understand how the machine works. The Policy Team of the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force is made up of the Mayor, the Chief of Police, District Attorney, Probation, School Superintendents and County Supervisors. The Policy Team is the driving force of the Task Force in collaboration with our City and County’s various Gang Suppression units, many of which involve covert operations. The Policy Team lays out the objectives of the Tech Team which is made up of community organizations. The Policy Team is co-chaired by the Mayor and the Police Chief. So although we may know this entity as the MGPTF, it should really be called the Mayor and Police Chief’s Gang Prevention Task Force, or maybe the District Attorney’s Gang Arresting Task Force, or maybe the Raza Youth and Adults Incarceration Task Force to describe it’s actual functions.  According to the recent Juvenile Justice Santa Clara County Annual Report, 65% of all arrests and citations are Raza youth, and Black youth are seven times more likely to be arrested or cited.

The Mayor's job is to represent the interests of the constituents of this city. The Chief's job is to arrest. The District Attorney's job is to prosecute. Probation’s job is to supervise youth and adults on probation after release. And the school superintendents’ job is to keep their schools safe. One key problem that is created through this partnership of educational institutions with police is how keeping “schools safe” has been interpreted by those with a law enforcement mindset. The approach leads to having police officers on campus and pipelining youth into county institutions like Sunol and Snell continuation schools, and eventually the Osborne Juvenile Center School. 

What do police captains, the District Attorney and the Gang Investigation Unit have to do with youth services when their sole purpose is prosecution, gang intelligence, monitoring and arresting suspected gang members and associates? If keeping youth out of prison is our priority, then the District Attorney and San José Police Department should be removed entirely. 

Overall, the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force provides resources for youth services and Gang Suppression in Gang Hotspots. Community organizations handle the youth services side and law enforcement handles suppression. But the entanglement of the two “sides” leaves youth who deserve services exposed and targeted.

Funds are dispersed from the City’s B.E.S.T. (Bringing Everyone’s Strengths Together) grant program to provide services for who they define as At-Risk, High Risk, Gang-Impacted and Gang-Intentional youth. At-Risk youth grow up and live in the barrio. High-Risk may adopt barrio culture but haven't been impacted just yet by the juvenile justice system. Gang-Impacted youth have been impacted by the juvenile justice system. Gang-Intentional youth have been impacted by the juvenile justice system and identified as gang members by law enforcement. All of these classifications are risk measures based on where youth live, their contact with law enforcement and impact of being incarcerated. None are measures of how to lift the opportunity and equality of the communities the youth live in, nor do they measure decarceration. These risk measures are defined and driven by law enforcement and the juvenile justice system which condemn youth to the machine.

There is currently a total of 18 Gang Hotspots, divided by four police divisions: Foothill, Central, Southern, and Western. Gang Hotspots are a double edged sword. Hotspots are designated communities where youth can receive services and are targeted by Gang Suppression Units. A majority of the Gang Hotspots are historically Chicano communities, barrios as old as the dirt itself. Emerging Hotspots are discussed among the San José Police Department captains, Street Outreach organizations and the Gang Investigation Unit. Hotspots are then presented to the Policy and Tech Teams of the MGPTF.

Labeling our barrios as Gang Hotspots criminalizes every living soul who has to work tirelessly and survive in these neighborhoods. While youth in these impoverished areas need the services, the conflict lies with the City’s youth services being driven by the same entities who are waiting in line to prosecute and incarcerate them.

But if youth crime has significantly decreased, and as a society we now understand that incarceration is not the solution, what's with the propaganda? Why are all our city’s barrios labeled as Gang Hotspots? Why would a city have law enforcement entangled with directing youth services?

Bad Hombres

The criminalization of Raza youth has a long and entrenched history in San José. Much like what the Jim Crow Laws did to Blacks after ending slavery, the California Greaser Act in 1855 aimed at justifying violations of the Treaty de Guadalupe and spreading mass propaganda about the criminal and inferior greaser. The Greaser Act restricted “greasers” – Spanish, Native Americans and Mexicans – from the right to work in the mining industry during the Gold Rush. US expansion combined with the Greaser Act turned affluent Spanish into greasers, land, business and property owners into cheap laborers, cheap laborers into prisoners, and prisoners into dead bodies hanging from trees.

Perhaps the best example of how this propaganda impacted Raza in San José is the lineage of Tiburcio Vásquez. Tiburcio Vásquez’s grandfather Juan Atanasio Vásquez co-founded Spanish California during the De Anza Expeditions one year prior to the establishment of the United States in 1776. Land and ranchos were granted to Juan Atanasio and both the cities of San Francisco and San José were founded a few years later. Juan Atanasio’s son, José Tiburcio Vásquez served as a soldier in San Francisco, was granted a rancho in San Mateo County and served as the Mayor of San José in 1802 under Spanish rule. José Tiburcio’s nephew Tiburcio Vásquez was an educated businessman and land owner who spoke multiple languages including Spanish, English, and various Native American tongues. After the Treaty of Guadalupe, Tiburcio’s prestige meant nothing as his business and family were constantly exploited and terrorized by the new Anglo settlers. As a result, Tiburcio and his family lineage went from being noble Spanish in the military and government, to a greaser, prisoner, and outlaw with no right to land, business or the right to work. Tiburcio Vásquez was hung in Saint James Park in 1875 in San José, California.

During World War II, the United States in collaboration with the Mexican government created the Bracero program to fill the void of the American workforce who had to serve their country. The Bracero program primarily focused on the production of agriculture. As a result, Mexican Braceros were overworked, underpaid and worked tirelessly under inhumane conditions. Mexican women also filled assembly line jobs in the canneries that were previously filled by their husbands, brothers and fathers. In San José, braceros, farmworkers and cannery workers began to populate today's barrios. After the war was over, Raza settled in the United States and the government responded with Operation Wetback to implement mass deportations.

But the first display of an anti-Mexican sentiment towards youth began during the Zoot Suit Riots in 1942. The Zoot Suit Riots were not aimed at the workers that settled during wartime, but instead this anti-Mexican sentiment aimed primarily at their children. Law enforcement and media vilified Chicano youth in every way they could. Chicano youth were criminalized as mobsters, petty criminals, and even ridiculous allegations of being spies and communists. As a result, Chicano youth and barrio culture remained tainted until present day incarcerating Raza en mass.

Although the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force began in 1991, the San José Police Department’s Gang Task Force began in 1979 during the height of San José’s Lowrider Renaissance. During this era, San José was the lowrider capital of the world attracting thousands of young people from all across the southwest to cruise King and Story Roads. The San José Police Department responded along with a statewide effort to criminalize our barrios as gangs and our youth as gang members. No Cruising Zones were enforced in 1986, and in 1988 the Gang Enhancement Law took effect, adding significant prison time to alleged gang members. The enhancements worked in the same way crack cocaine charges were used to incarcerate communities of color with more severe sentences then powder cocaine, which was used by the white community. Both prosecutorial tactics were a way to keep Black and Raza communities incarcerated longer than their white counterparts for the same alleged criminal activity.

The Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force opened up shop in ‘91 as a collaboration effort with law enforcement and community organizations. The Three Strikes Law followed in 1994 which led to an overcrowding of “bad hombres” in youth and adult facilities statewide. In the year 2000, Proposition 21 passed causing youth ages 14 and older charged with serious offenses to be direct filed into adult court. James Ortega, at 14 years old, was the youngest person in the state to be direct filed as an adult. His transfer into the adult system happened right here in San José.

Bad Hombres 2.0

Gang Hotspots are synonymous with our barrios, barrios that have been historically impacted by poverty and inequality. Crime is only a result of poverty and inequality. Gang Hotspots are also synonymous with gang locations. Police document youth and adults as suspected gang members and associates who live in these gang locations, which do not have to result in an arrest. Police can also document youth and adults simply for associating with other suspected gang members and associates. Cultural, and regional identifiers such as fashion and tattoos are also documented. Remove “gang” from the picture and these police stops are synonymous with racial profiling.

Not only is targeting Raza youth problematic, but so is the criminalization of what we now know to be normal adolescent behavior. According to a recent study by the Marshall Project, neuroscience suggests that the parts of the brain that govern risk and reward are not fully developed until age 25. In addition, studies have shown that a majority of people “age out” from committing serious and violent crimes by the time they hit their mid to late 20’s. Yet despite the new understanding between the correlation between age and behavior, our City and County is throwing the book at normal juvenile behavior.

Although the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force is transparent to a degree, what remains in the dark is how exactly the Gang Suppression side ties into the Task Force. While the City may recognize the Task Force for its youth services, those impacted often only know the Gang Suppression side. Gang Suppression is made up of various law enforcement units. Unmarked cars, infrared beams, drones, confidential informants, racial profiling and SWAT gear from these various Gang Suppression units are tools to keeping our youth locked up. A recent audit of the MGPTF found that nearly half of the youth receiving services are from the lowest risk population, yet the Task Force is funded to serve High-Risk, Gang-Impacted and Gang-Intentional youth. This may largely be due to youth’s distrust of services when partnering with the same entities that are arresting and prosecuting them.

Santa Clara County prosecutors abuse gang “documentation” retrieved to convince juries to find our youth and adults guilty of gang enhancements even when gang documentation never resulted in an arrest or had anything to do with the alleged charges. Prosecutors often do this by abusing services that youth and adults may be receiving from the MGPTF. For example, late night gyms are intended to provide a safe space for Gang-Impacted youth to participate in recreational activities while receiving services from community organizations. But instead, the District Attorney’s office uses participation in these centers to build their gang enhancement cases.

Frankie Mata, a 37 year old Financial Advisor, husband and father of three testified as a character witness on behalf of his surrogate brother, Hugo Chavez, who was wrongly convicted with gang enhancements in April, 2018. Frankie explains the conflict between youth services and the criminal justice system during his youth

We would go over to the Alma Center which was across the street from his house. They had weights, video games, a little playground, a handball court. A lot of the times we would take the soccer ball, sometimes we even did homework there.

I was a little shocked initially when he [the prosecutor] was basically stating that the center was a Hotspot for gang members to go and hang out. On a number of occasions, I can remember two or three times when we would leave the community center, to go walking to his house, we’d get pulled over by police officers, and they would ask us questions about where we were going. What we're doing? Who are we? And they would take pictures of us, and then they let us go, and we would be on our way, and that would be a kind of a norm there in that neighborhood. 

The District Attorney utilizing the youth center, I think that in itself is a slap to the Mayor. Essentially the District Attorney is taking the Mayor’s hard work, building these safe havens for youth, and mudding the water and saying that this is an incubator for gang members, not safe and anybody that hangs out here is associated with gang members. It’s sending a very opposite and different message than what the Mayor built these community centers for… there has to be a division between the youth centers and law enforcement.

So while community organizations may be working hard on keeping youth and young adults out of prison, prosecutors are working harder to keep this same population in prison.

Listen to a conversation between J.M. Valle and Frankie Mata, the brother of Hugo Chavez who in April received a 100+ year sentence for crimes he had no part in. The Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force is labeling our neighborhoods as "hot spots" for gang activity and baiting our youth into prison.

Dismantling the Machine

Removing the District Attorney and the San José Police Department entirely from youth services is vital to our future. Instead of having a law enforcement-centric model, the City needs an incarceration prevention model which can explore and invest in any and all other alternatives to incarceration directed by community organizations. Investing in Raza owned businesses, homes and higher education can uplift the economy of San José’s working class. Mandating Chicano studies into US and World history classes in all public schools in Santa Clara County can empower youth into believing they can contribute to our society. Ensuring a citizenship path for undocumented folks is a must. Supporting Chicano murals, removing no cruising signs, strengthening the relationship between the City and the low-rider community, and accessible venues are needed so that the culture and market of a people can thrive while shedding positivity on our youth.

Another solution is a health based model to prevent contact with the juvenile justice system. Our current law enforcement-centric model is failing to address the circumstances that contribute to youth entering the court system and becoming incarcerated. Many of the issues that bring youth into the justice system are symptoms of mental, emotional or social circumstances better addressed by alternatives such as health based services. There are many agencies offering behavioral health and mental health services who are already serving this population successfully. A health based model could drive our youth towards achieving the goal of reducing recidivism that has eluded the MGPTF in its current form.

If our City and County want to be true youth justice national leaders we need to believe in rehabilitation, and we must remove law enforcement and prosecutors from youth services entirely.

Related Media:
Mural de la Raza Was My Mirror
California Gang Database Exposed