Criminal street gangs account for many of the home invasions, drive-by shootings, drug crimes, and robberies in southern California.

The state enforces a gang “enhancement” law, the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, that outlaws and punishes street gang activities, but sometimes, innocent people have been accused of gang membership or gang crimes under the gang enhancement law.

HOW MANY GANGS AND GANG MEMBERS ARE IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA?

But first, here is a brief look at some disturbing numbers that indicate the extent of the problem.

In 2012, research published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told us that hundreds of gangs are operating in southern California.

In the seven-county area (Santa Barbara, Riverside, Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino counties), the FBI says that 175,000 young men are members of more than 1,300 street gangs.

WHAT IS THE OVERALL EFFECT OF STREET GANGS?

Young men, of course, join street gangs for a variety of reasons – status, friendship, self-esteem, and the possibility of adventure. Street gangs create their own nicknames, symbols, tattoos, and graffiti.

Inevitably, however, criminal street gangs have an overall destructive effect.

Most criminal justice experts believe that street gangs must be targeted with a variety of strategies that will require the cooperation of law enforcement agencies, schools, courts, the media, and healthcare professionals.

WHAT IS THE STEP ACT AND WHAT ARE ITS PROVISIONS?

California’s gang enhancement law – formally called the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act and commonly called the STEP Act, includes two main provisions, but only one is actually a sentencing enhancement:

Gang participation: The STEP Act criminalizes any active participation in a criminal gang and assisting any gang member in the commission of a felony. Anyone convicted for participating in a criminal gang could face up to three years in prison.

Sentencing enhancement: The STEP Act requires mandatory prison time for anyone convicted of committing a felony in California for a gang’s benefit. This penalty is additional to any penalty imposed for the “underlying” original felony.

The second provision of the STEP Act – sentencing enhancement – could mean at least two years in prison, and in some cases, the prison term can be much longer.

In fact, for particular violent felonies, in some cases, the sentencing enhancement could be as much as twenty-five years-to-life in prison.

The courts in California have determined that felony sentences may be enhanced under the STEP Act even when a defendant committed a crime alone.

WHAT MUST THE STATE PROVE TO CONVICT YOU UNDER THE STEP ACT?

It’s a complicated law, so it is imperative for a defendant to be represented by a lawyer with experience defending those charged under the STEP Act.

To convict someone for active gang participation under the STEP Act, a prosecutor must prove:

The defendant was an active participant in a criminal street gang.

The defendant knew that gang members were engaged in a “pattern” of criminal activity.

The defendant intentionally furthered, assisted, or promoted the felonious criminal conduct of the gang members.

To prove that a defendant furthered, assisted, or promoted felony criminal activity by a street gang, a prosecutor must prove that the defendant committed a felony or that the defendant aided and abetted a felony.

IF YOU’RE ACCUSED OF A GANG CRIME, WHERE CAN YOU FIND HELP?

If you are charged with being a criminal street gang member or with committing a gang-related crime under the STEP Act, an experienced Long Beach criminal defense attorney can help.

After this type of arrest, you must exercise your right to remain silent and your right to an attorney. Be cooperative during the arrest and booking, but make no statements, and answer no questions except to explain politely that you are exercising your right to remain silent.

Then, speak to a criminal defense lawyer at the first possible opportunity.

WHAT CONSTITUTES A “GANG” ACCORDING TO CALIFORNIA LAW?

California defines a gang as “any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons … which has a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity.”

A gang member is “any person who actively participates in any gang with knowledge that its members engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity, and who willfully promotes, furthers, or assists in any felonious criminal conduct by members of that gang.”

The actual penalties handed down for gang-related convictions under the STEP Act will depend on several factors including the defendant’s criminal record and the details of the crime and conviction.

Gang crimes that involve minors or that are committed in the vicinity of a school are penalized more harshly.

WHAT IS THE TRUTH ABOUT STREET GANGS?

Popular music, films, and television have sometimes glorified gang members, but the fact is that most street gang members are young men who are actually very typical in many ways.

Most gang members are not actively planning violent crimes, and most gang crimes are, in fact, about fights over girls, status, “turf,” and respect.

Street gangs have been active in southern California since at least the 1920s, but their numbers grew at a disturbing rate in the last two decades of the twentieth century, and as noted above, gang membership rates remain high.

Gangs will probably exist as long as young men need a sense of belonging and camaraderie, but over the last several decades in southern California, too many innocent people have been accused of crimes that were purportedly gang-related.

COULD YOU BE WRONGLY ACCUSED OF BEING A GANG MEMBER?

If you have been arrested and charged with an allegedly gang-related criminal offense, you could be facing an extended prison term if you’re convicted.

Many who have never belonged to a gang – or who were only casually acquainted with a gang member – been charged improperly with “gang-related” offenses.

If you are charged with a gang crime, you must be represented by a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer who understands the STEP Act and who has considerable experience representing those charged with gang crimes in southern California.

If you are innocent – or if you committed only a minor crime that was not a gang crime – or even if you are guilty of the charge, an experienced Long Beach criminal defense attorney can provide the legal help you need, but you must take the first step and make the call.

If you’ve been arrested, get the legal help you need at once. What’s at stake is your freedom and your future. Legal help is your right.