Being labeled a gangster could land you in prison longer, even if you’re a regular criminal

The handcuffs of a suspected member of the Broadway Gangster Crips street gang is seen while being interviewed by a law enforcement officer after he was arrested in Los Angeles on June 17, 2014.

Here's a term I hadn't encountered before today: "gang enhancement."

It refers to a law passed in response to the gang violence in Los Angeles back in the 1980s. Gang enhancement allows prosecutors to stiffen the sentence for certain types of crimes. But they have to prove the crime was committed by a gang member — or on behalf of a street gang.

But figuring out who's a gang member, and who isn't, is actually a difficult endeavor.

"You know, you might be 'associating' with a gang member, but he might be your brother, or he might be the kid you went to first grade with or the kid who lives next door," says Daniel Alarcón, who wrote a story about gang enhancement for the New York Times Magazine. "I think it's an incredibly complicated issue. And I think that law enforcement has a really difficult task trying to separate who is and who isn't a gang member, but they don't always get it right."

Alarcón says the problems some people have with the laws are in the enforcement. Some think the laws are used in in a manor that can be seen as discriminatory. "Ninety percent of the people in California prisons right now — with gang enhancement — are black or Latino. And only three percent are white."

Many see the numbers as unbalanced and believe that prosecutors choose to use the gang enhancement law selectively.

But it all gets back to a word: gang. We've seen it used to describe Latino and black prison gangs, drug runners or bikers.

"It's one of those words that is like, 'I know it when I see it,'" he says. "The problem is, in a court of law, those suppositions are not part of the system that we purport to have in the United States."

But Alarcón says it's tough to get past our own bias. He went to court and looked at men charged with being gang members. To him, they looked like gang members.

"I think I learned how easy it is to make these suppositions without getting to know more intimately the people who are labeled this way," he says. "It's a perfectly human response. The problem is that it's not the way our criminal justice system should work."

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