In 1987, California passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act). The California legislature’s goal was to address the increasing criminal activities by street gangs and through the STEP Act it imposed a three-year sentencing enhancement for gang related crimes. Proponents of the law claimed that it would be applied narrowly and only in cases of serious and violent crimes and where the prosecution has clearly demonstrated a pattern of criminal activity. However, since its enactment, through legislation and court rulings, the severity of the STEP Act gang enhancements increased and their application broadened exponentially. The reality is that these enhancements have resulted in overly punitive and mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes and even misdemeanors, and in many cases have led to life sentences.
Needless to say, the end result of the STEP Act has been devastating and has caused an immeasurable damage to entire neighborhoods and communities. For defendants, a gang member designation can have a very negative impact through their entire interaction with the criminal system, including pretrial release, sentencing, incarceration, parole, reentry, and for non-citizens an almost guaranteed deportation.
In 2020, Governor Newsom commissioned the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code to examine the California Penal Code and to issue recommendations for reform. According to the Committee’s 2020 report, the STEP Act has been applied inconsistently and has disproportionately affected communities of color. Furthermore, the report pointed out that while between 2011 and 2019 California reduced its prison population, during the same period, the number of inmates who were serving gang enhancements increased by approximately 40 percent. Moreover, according to the report, in Los Angeles, more than 98 percent of defendants with gang enhancements were people of color.