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 it."
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 in court.
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 gang-related?
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 significant.
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 problem?
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 good.
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 corner.
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 county level?
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 program.
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 happening. 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.