It's sometimes called the Law of the Instrument: If your only tool is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. Let's add this corollary: Pound too hard, too often, or too wildly, and someone's bound to relieve you of your hammer.
That's something to think about in the wake of the L.A. City Council's decision Wednesday to pay up to $30 million to settle a lawsuit challenging city gang injunctions that were applied so indiscriminately that they deprived thousands of young people the power to legally improve themselves. Gang injunctions are court orders intended to curb crime and intimidation by restricting things like what alleged gang members can wear, where they can gather and when they can go out. They can include curfews, which when narrowly tailored can help curb crime. But L.A. applied them so rigidly that they blocked people from getting jobs or attending schools that required night hours — leaving nothing but the gang as a support system. Gang members were in effect treated as criminals without ever being accused, tried for or convicted of any crime.
They are court orders that aim to severely curtail gang activity by, among other things, prohibiting gang members and their associates from socializing with one another, carrying weapons or wearing certain clothing inside an injunction's designated area — typically the neighborhoods where the gangs are active.
L.A. also made it far too hard for people wrongly served with gang injunctions, or people who were trying to break away and lead responsible lives apart from gang ties, to get their names cleared. A program that tapped the resources of the Advancement Project, a nonprofit justice advocacy organization, fell woefully short, and the settlement provides a quicker alternative path off the gang injunction ranks.
As for the money, it will go to service providers to help those who were caught up in the curfews with things like job training, tattoo removal and other programs to give them the power to move on with their lives — power they were for so long denied.
It is a good but costly settlement that would have been unnecessary had the city been more judicious and flexible in imposing gang injunctions in the first place and had it considered the welfare and future of the people covered as well as the law-abiding people who were protected. It is pathetic that the city government of America's gang capital must be forced by lawsuit to provide funding to help people off the gang rolls instead of doing so proactively as city policy.
Neighborhoods and the people who live in them have every right to live without fear of crime or gangs, and the city is obliged to develop tools to protect them. But the city pounded its gang injunction hammer too hard, too often and too unthinkingly. This time it smashed its own thumb. Next time, if it does not wield its hammer more wisely, it could find its toolbox taken away.