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Our rigid sentencing laws leave no room for nuanced judgment

My column Tuesday on the courtroom tears of a gang member sentenced to 40 years in prison for a campus shooting resonated with readers — but not in the way I imagined it would.

I considered the courtroom scene a cautionary message to other young men who glorify gangs and are enamored of guns: You could spend the rest of your life in prison over a stupid vendetta and a single violent act.

But readers focused not just on the threat posed by hotheads with guns, but on the perceived injustice of such a long sentence for a young man who didn't kill anyone.

"We can be compassionate at the same time as holding Brandon Spencer accountable for his irresponsible and dangerous actions," wrote Stephanie Dobbs. "However, 40 years in prison seems excessive for a young person who may have positive potential."

I understand the hand-wringing; I agree the sentence is harsh. Compared to other cases that make news, it may be unjust.

But it is also precisely what California voters have repeatedly decreed: stiff mandatory prison sentences for gun use and gang-related crimes.

Under our strict, inflexible rules, thousands of young men like Brandon Spencer have been yoked by tough laws to long prison terms.

Are we really moved by injustice here — or by Spencer's public tears?

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Brandon Spencer, 21, wasn't even born when the crime crackdown began. That was 1988, the year gang homicides in Los Angeles County soared past 400, a record high then.

In response, the state Legislature enacted the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, which made it easier to target gang members and keep them behind bars. The measure was intended to send a message and act as a deterrent.

When that didn't make a big enough dent in crime, voters upped the ante, approving initiatives that lengthened prison terms, limited parole and added time for previous offenses, gang affiliations and using a gun.

Under our current sentencing scheme — with the mandatory weapons and gang "enhancements" the jury verdict required — Spencer could have been given 40 years behind bars for each one of his wounded victims. That 160-year prison term is what prosecutors wanted.

Instead, the judge made his four terms concurrent, which allows Spencer a chance for parole when he reaches middle age — or earlier if prison rolls keep growing and all the cells are filled.

Right now we're wrestling with the consequences of our tough-on-crime contagion. Prison overcrowding has led to warehousing, with no room or money for rehabilitation.

But hey, crime is going down. So there's no need to contemplate the humanity of criminals — not until we're confronted with a clean-cut young man in handcuffs, wailing that his life is over.

"You look at that and you think 'Is 40-years-to-life too much?'" said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. "That's the minimum for shooting into a crowd of 100 defenseless people."

Spencer — whose moniker was "Gunplay" when he bragged on social media about his gang exploits — was aiming at a young man from a rival gang when he emptied his revolver outside a Halloween party on the USC campus 18 months ago. He wounded his target and three other young people as they tried to flee.

"You don't punish the luck — that no one died. You punish the callous conduct," Lacey said. "He has never once apologized to the victims or said he's sorry for what he's done. He's just sorry for himself."

She's not joining the pity party; Spencer earned what he got. "Neighborhoods are under siege by this kind of foolishness by people who embrace the gang life, as this young man did," she said.

"They don't care who they hit, who they kill....Then there's the day of reckoning and all of a sudden 'I'm not a gang member.'"

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It's fair to question whether Spencer deserves such a long and inflexible punishment for his single criminal act.

Is this a young man in the process of straightening up, as friends and family claim? Or is he so steeped in gang culture he's a menace on the streets?

That's the kind of question our current sentencing system doesn't adequately address.

Khalid Shah sees young men who straddle that line almost every day. He works with hundreds of teens on probation for minor offenses, many gang-related. He requires them to study the law, so they understand how tough and unforgiving California's gang statutes are.

That knowledge can change the calculus of decision-making, he said. "We've had kids say 'I got caught up in a situation and was going to do something [violent], but I thought about 186 and made a different choice.'" That's the penal code section that could send them to prison for 15 years for a gang-related street brawl.

Shah understands why Spencer melted down in the courtroom when his sentence was announced. Three years ago, Spencer was shot by a rival gang in the parking lot of Inglewood's Proud Bird restaurant. He still carries a slug in his back. No one went to jail for that.

"He's living in a cartoon world," Shah said. "In his mind, this guy tried to shoot me, I shot him back. What's the big deal? By no stretch of his imagination, should he be facing life [behind bars] for that."

Shah is uncomfortable, as well, with the harshness of the term. "Obviously if somebody commits a crime, they've got to pay for it," he said. "But the knee-jerk policies we've put in place are costing us young people who make mistakes based on immaturity or what they think is cool.

"We have to step back and take a look at ourselves. It's not just gangs. It's the kids in the suburbs, shooting up schools."

We can't imprison our way out of a problem that's bigger than crime statistics suggest. We need to pay more attention to struggling youngsters and stop easy access to guns.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

 

 

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