CALIFORNIA: TALKING ABOUT GANGS
Judge looks for ways to stem violence
San Mateo Supervising Juvenile Court Judge Marta Diaz
has never seen such "vicious, violent" gang crimes as she does today.
Before becoming a judge in 2000, she worked as both a Juvenile Court
prosecutor and defense attorney from 1989 to 1997. "There are guns
everywhere," she said. "There is no area in this community immune from
Parents who are either oblivious to the danger of
gangs or enable their child's participation are to blame, as well as the
influence of media violence and the neighborhood conditions kids are
forced to live in, Diaz said.
In an interview with staff writer Julia Scott, she
suggested that parents and county agencies should emphasize gang
prevention � so that many at-risk children never have to see their day
Q: What kind of gang activity are you seeing, and
has the incidence of gang activity increased over time?
A: It is an enormous problem, one that people do not appreciate. Gang
stuff in San Mateo County is viewed as a series of disconnected
incidents. In the juvenile arena, the crimes are vicious and much more
violent than anything I've seen, and I'm also talking about my
experience prior to being a judge.
Since 1989, the crimes and the "quality" of crime have increased in
number and in viciousness. We have a category of kids in our juvenile
hall and in our Camp Glenwood, a behavior modification program, which we
didn't have to deal with 15 years ago. There is a desperate need for an
increase in prevention programs, and those have not arisen.
Q: What percentage of the cases that you hear are
A: Easily sixty percent of violent offences involving a misdemeanor-type
assault as well as felony weapons possessions are gang-related, such as
knives and assaults at school, "jumping in" kids at school, and
non-school assaults, fights and robberies. Thefts, drug-related
offences, property crimes are a much smaller percentage, but still
I'm also including probation violations as gang-related: kids violate
their gang association orders and weapons possession orders.
They won't stop. They know the price and they keep doing it.
Q: How do you account for the escalation of the
A: You have people who have just arrived here and don't know their
kids are being recruited into gangs.
Then there are people who have lived here for a long time and assume
that we don't have a big gang problem just because they don't read about
in the papers every day. I ask parents, "Why are you letting your kid
run around in a red or blue shirt in downtown San Mateo on a Friday
night?" The answer I get is: "My son's not in a gang. He's a good
student." I don't care � if he's wearing a red shirt in certain areas of
town, he's basically wearing a bull's-eye on his back.
I also see parents who know their kids are in gangs. I'm just amazed at
the unwillingness of some parents to deal with what has to be their
business. I tell them, "Your kid needs to get out of this gang or he
will die, and you're giving me grief."
Q: What other factors have contributed to this?
A: I think that the overwhelming media violence that is thrown at
these kids from the time they're little is a factor. The cartoonish way
violence is portrayed in films and in video games. If you let your child
be bombarded with these images of violence, and if you glamorize
violence against police, and against women, that plays a role.
The most common ages we see are 15 and 16, but we even see 11- and
12-year-olds who come in here. They think that being a gang member is
the greatest thing in the world.
Q: What kinds of punishments will you give someone
in the hopes of deterring them from future gang activity? Do you think
you're having an effect?
A: It depends on what day you ask me. My standard is, if out of 40
cases a day, I get one result that's mildly positive, I feel pretty
The punishment depends on the kid. If I sense that the parent has really
laid down the law with their kid, I don't have to do that much. I'll
probably point the parent to the Parent Project, a great program we have
here. I'll add some victim restorative justice, because a lot of kids
have no empathy factor, and when they really meet the person they've
victimized, they're overwhelmed. When the kids come in here and don't
get it, and I sense that the parents are enablers � which is a majority
of the parents we deal with � then I have to be much tougher, because I
have to undo all that damage. It could be time in the juvenile hall, or
I'll send them to Camp Glenwood if it's an out-of-control situation. If
we run out of options, and we have to protect society from a dangerous
youngster, we send them to the California Youth Authority.
Q: How many of the kids keep coming back to court?
A: I see a couple of newcomers every day, but I would say that I
know most of these kids by name and I recognize them when they walk
through the courtroom. Gang-oriented kids repeat at a higher level than
a petty theft or a drug crime.
It's very frustrating to see people coming through over and over again.
You get a little success with a kid at a camp, and then they go home to
the same dysfunction, the same poverty. They try to keep their heads
above water, but then they sink again.
I understand that life is hard for these families. It's very difficult
to abide by gang orders. Try telling a kid who lives in a two-bedroom
apartment below the poverty line, "You can't be in a gang area." That
means that a 15-year-old boy has to stay in the apartment that his
parents share with two other families, and he can't even go out on the
Q: Is there a particular type of activity kids are
involved in right now?
A: I think the biggest hallmark I'm seeing is the guns. There are
guns everywhere. Guns in middle schools. There is no area in this
community immune from it. We've had shooting with AK-47s. We had a car
that came from the East Bay that got pulled over by police with four
guns, ready to rock'n' roll.
I'm seeing a lot of attacks, but not because there's money involved.
Right now, it's all about, "I hate you because you wear blue." They just
want to hurt each other.
Q: Who needs to take responsibility for this at the
A: I believe in personal responsibility. I don't blame any
bureaucracy for crimes. But there's a bunch of people who we can prevent
from breaking the law, and the key is finding the best practices to do
that. I have seen hardened gang bangers turned around by the right
In California, the approach we take is, "When it gets broken, we'll fix
it," rather than seeing what we can do to prevent these things from
We can spend a couple of bucks up front when kids are in kindergarten or
first grade, and make being associated with a gang as disgusting as
we've tried to make smoking a cigarette.
Then we've got the kids we know are high at risk. Identifying those kids
and doing what we need to in order to prevent them from getting involved
in gangs is where the focus really needs to be.
And there are definitely things that can be done that are not being
done. There are after-school programs � there's that horrible time of
day between the end of school and the evening, that's the witching hour.
Kids need mentors to get involved with them. A lot of
these kids have parents in prison or come from families that drink and
do drugs. But they can be salvaged, and need to be.