According to the FBI’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, “[T]he West and North Central regions [of the United States] — particularly Arizona, California, and Illinois — boast the highest number of gang members.” Additionally, certain areas of California and other states “report that gangs are responsible for at least 90% of crime.” With gang activity such a pervasive issue in California – particularly in Los Angeles and its surrounding cities and counties – legislators have enacted extremely tough sentencing laws in an effort to deter gang-related crime. One product of these efforts is California’s gang sentencing enhancement law, which can dramatically extend an inmate’s prison sentence. If a family member has been charged with gang activity in Ventura County, they could be affected.
California Sentencing Enhancements Extend Prison Terms for Gang-Related Felonies
Portions of California’s penal code are specifically dedicated to gang activity. Under Cal. Penal Code § 186.22(a), which is part of California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act), it is a criminal act to “actively participate… in any criminal street gang with knowledge that its members engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity” when the person “willfully promotes, furthers, or assists in any felonious criminal conduct by members of that gang.”
In short, it is a crime to participate in a gang or help a criminal gang commit felony offenses. This applies even if the person who is assisting the gang is not actually a member of the gang, which can cause siblings, cousins, boyfriends, girlfriends, and others to become entangled in incredibly serious criminal charges.
The same statute makes gang activity, as it is defined above, punishable by up to one year in a county jail, or by 16 months, two years, or three years in prison. However, that is merely the sentence for participating in a gang. If the defendant commits a felony for the gang’s benefit, the sentencing enhancement applies, and the sentence can be much longer.
This is due to a provision of the statute found under Cal. Penal Code § 186.22(b)(1), which states that if the defendant is convicted of a felony “committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with any criminal street gang,” his or her sentence can be lengthened at the court’s discretion, if the defendant acted “with the specific intent to promote, further, or assist in any criminal conduct by gang members.” In this scenario, the defendant can receive a sentence “in addition and consecutive to the punishment prescribed for the [underlying] felony.”
Put simply, the defendant may be sentenced to extra prison time in addition to the sentence for the felony itself. “Consecutive” sentences are sentences that run one after another, rather than simultaneously.
How Many Years Can Be Added to a Convicted Defendant’s Prison Sentence?
The amount of time that gets added to a sentence depends on the felony that was committed for, or in association with, the gang. With some exceptions, which will be explained in just a moment, the defendant may be sentenced to an additional:
- 2 years in prison
- 3 years in prison
- 4 years in prison
Unfortunately for defendants who are facing gang-related felony charges in California, the exceptions – which relate to “serious” felonies and “violent” felonies – do not make sentencing any shorter. On the contrary, they allow for even harsher punishments.
If the felony is categorized as a serious felony, the defendant can be sentenced to an additional five years. Examples of serious felonies include but are not limited to:
- Assault with a Deadly Weapon on a Police Officer
- Bank Robbery
- Capital Felonies
- First Degree Burglary
- Voluntary Manslaughter
If the felony is categorized as a violent felony, the defendant can be sentenced to an additional 10 years. Examples of violent felonies include but are not limited to:
- Attempted Murder
- Voluntary Manslaughter
As you can see by comparing these lists, some crimes, such as mayhem and robbery, are considered to be serious felonies and violent felonies. In a situation where an offense is both serious and violent, sentencing depends on factors like the defendant’s criminal record, the type of felony, and details specific to the case (such as aggravating factors).
Defendants and their family members should also be made aware that, in addition to its gang sentencing enhancements, California has several other sentencing enhancements which can also be factors in criminal cases. For example, under Cal. Penal Code § 12022.53(b), 10 years can be added to a person’s sentence if they use a gun. Importantly, “The firearm need not be operable or loaded for this enhancement to apply.”
This is called the 10-20-Life Law, informally known by the slogan “use a gun and you’re done.”
Charged with Gang Activity in CA? Contact Our Ventura Criminal Defense Attorneys
If one of your family members was accused of having gang ties or committing a felony for a street gang, he or she faces tough sentencing enhancements that can extend a prison term by many years. The court has discretion to order whatever sentencing enhancement it feels “best serves the interests of justice.”
When such harsh consequences are a possibility, it is absolutely critical that your loved one has the benefit of aggressive legal representation by a knowledgeable and highly experienced Ventura criminal defense lawyer. Call The Law Offices of Bamieh & De Smeth, PLC at (805) 585-5056 for a free legal consultation. We serve Ventura County and Santa Barbara County.