According to the arresting officer, at 7 am on June 29, Danny walked down North Avenue 54 wearing gloves and holding a spray paint can. He stopped outside a 7/11, shook the can, and spray painted “HLXP1” on the beige wall above the overloaded dumpsters. Then, he turned down York Street and sprayed “HLXPARK1” on the cracked curb of the 7/11’s parking lot. He nodded at his handiwork.

The graffiti was a gang tag, meant to mark Highland Park’s territory and assert the gang’s status in the neighborhood. HLP and its variations, HLXP1 and HLXPARK1, all meant the same thing: “Highland Park is number 1.” 

It’s September 4, and Danny is at his preliminary hearing for the alleged crime, which was caught on a 7/11 security camera. His charge for the graffiti: felony vandalism.

If he’s found guilty, he could face up to three years in prison and $10,000 in fines for spray painting letters on a wall and a curb.

Danny is hunched at the counsel’s table. He’s 28, sports a shaved head, and wears a baggy red and black plaid shirt over his muscular frame. His attorney is public defender Zachary Begle, a man in an impeccably fitted blue suit who is bizarrely handsome — like a lawyer from an Oscar-winning legal drama. Even Begle can’t seem to wrap his head around the magnitude of the charge relative to the crime at hand.

In California, vandalism causing under $400 in damages is considered a misdemeanor while vandalism causing over $400 in damages is considered a “wobbler,” a crime that can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony. But Danny’s offense didn’t cause nearly $400 worth of damages. By the time of his court date, the curb and the dumpster wall had already been lathered with a bit of paint by city workers. The only evidence of the offense is a slight difference in shade. Where there once was beige there now is taupe.

Begle asks Judge Dorothy Reyes to reduce the crime to a misdemeanor. He doesn’t say it should “obviously” be reduced, but that’s the subtext. This is obviously a misdemeanor. The damage is under $400. It’s just some spray paint on a 7/11.

Reyes denies the request without a second’s pause.

She doesn’t even look up from the cluster of papers on her bench. The court finds sufficient cause, and Danny is held to answer on all counts and allegations. His felony arraignment is scheduled on the court calendar. Begle ushers his client out of the gallery as the judge calls the next defendant on the docket. Danny looks at his sneakers, his face fallen.

How did this happen?

At first glance the charges appear to extend beyond prosecutorial overreach. It doesn’t seem legal.

But it is.

The reason that Danny’s crime can be prosecuted as a felony is because of the 1988 Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, or “STEP” Act. The legislation was written to crack down on gang violence, which lawmakers argued had reached a “state of crisis” (PC Section 186.2). In practice, the STEP Act can add years onto felony prison sentences. In severe cases, it can add 25 years to a sentence or even extend it to life in prison. It can also turn any misdemeanor into a felony.

That’s exactly what it did today.

Regardless, the charge seems severe. But what if we give prosecutors the benefit of the doubt? Is there some other reason to charge Danny with a felony?

The short answer is yes. He has a long list of prior convictions, a rap sheet that makes him look substantially dirtier in the eyes of the court.

I don’t like short answers.

Here’s the long one:

In the spring of 2011 Danny was charged with three counts of felony vandalism with a STEP gang enhancement for graffitiing gang insignias on a wall. The judge dismissed the gang enhancement and reduced all counts to a single misdemeanor. Danny pled no contest and was sentenced to 36 months informal probation and 30 days of community service.

In the fall of 2011, Danny was charged with carrying a concealed firearm and possession of a firearm whose make or model number had been removed. Both charges are typically misdemeanors, but the prosecutor elevated the first to a felony with a STEP Act gang enhancement. The case proceeded to a jury trial, which resulted in a mistrial. All charges were dismissed.

In the fall of 2012 Danny was charged with carrying a concealed firearm in his car. Again, due to a STEP Act gang enhancement, the offense that is typically a misdemeanor became a felony, but this time Danny pled no contest. As a result, he was sentenced to formal probation of three years and 180 days in jail.

In the summer of 2013, Danny was fresh out of jail and on probation when he was arrested and charged with vandalism when he graffitied a Highland Park insignia on public property. The damage was over $400 and prosecutors charged him with a felony and STEP gang enhancement. Danny took a plea deal that eliminated the gang enhancement, but kept the felony charge. He was sentenced to 16 months in county jail.

In the spring of 2016, the law was on Danny’s heels again when he was charged with two counts of robbery and one count of felon possession of a firearm with a STEP gang enhancement. The case went to jury trial. He was acquitted on both counts of robbery, leaving a sole guilty verdict of felon possession of a firearm, which itself is a felony. Danny was sentenced to two years in state prison.

For those of you keeping score this means that by the time Danny was 26 he had been convicted of misdemeanor vandalism, felony concealed firearm, felony vandalism, and felon possession of a firearm.

Every single one of those charges was stacked with a gang enhancement.

The gang enhancements were supposed to deter Danny from committing more crimes, but in this case they seem to have failed. Some may argue that the solution is to implement even harsher punishments in order to prevent individuals like Danny from becoming recidivists. Others may look at individuals like Danny as a lost cause, young men who see prison as a right of passage rather than an institution to be avoided.

Regardless of your perspective, the number of repeat criminal offenders is staggering. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a special report regarding a comprehensive study of inmates in 30 states (including California). The report found that 83% of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested at least once in the nine years following their release.

On paper Danny is a textbook recidivist.

But Danny doesn’t live on paper.

I don’t know much about Danny’s life but I do know two things for certain: the first is that he grew up in Highland Park. The neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles has been a hotbed of gang activity since the 1960s, when the region faced an influx of migrants from Central America and white flight drained the community of resources. Given his neighborhood, it’s likely that Danny was raised in an environment affected by gang culture. As a teenager, Danny probably knew of gang members in his community. Some of them may have been his friends. Others may have been family members.

When Danny was first arrested for spray-painting gang insignias in 2011 he was just 21 years old. It feels like a reach to call that vandalism the act of a hardened criminal. More likely, it was a stupid act to impress his friends and maybe ingratiate himself to the gang.

Danny’s next two charges are for firearms violations. For those of us who grew up in a relatively safe environment, it’s easy to see illegal firearm possession as a straightforward violent act. The problem is that if you are a man living in a community where gun violence is a constant threat, it’s possible that you may feel the need to carry a firearm for self-defense. Violent offenders and potential victims are muddied in this equation — sometimes within the same person. The fear certainly does not excuse carrying an illegal firearm but it may explain it.

We don’t know why Danny carried an illegal firearm. We do know that the offense made him a felon.

Barely entering his mid-20s, Danny bore the scarlet “F” on his chest. The mark could deter potential employers and could prevent him from ever working as a doctor, nurse, lawyer, dentist, pharmacist, real estate agent, teacher, social worker, or physical therapist due to licensing qualifications. As a convicted felon, he is no longer eligible for state-funded housing assistance or student loans for college. He can’t serve in the military, and he’s banned for life from possessing a firearm. Door after door was closed in his face, his future limited to a narrow corridor before he was even old enough to rent a car.

Without excusing Danny’s behavior, consider the world in which he now lived. He had a criminal record, limited access to legal employment, and many of his friends and members of his support system were probably gang members.

What’s worse is that every time that Danny was incarcerated it wasn’t a respite from gang culture. Gangs have a massive degree of control in California prisons and jails. They regulate social and economic affairs and joining a gang can help protect you from an otherwise dangerous environment.

Incarceration also removed Danny from home. This is important because of the second thing I know about Danny: Since his first conviction at 21, Danny has become the father of four children. His years of incarceration mean that he missed first days of school, summer barbecues, bike rides, and birthday parties. Danny’s absence has caused his children to inherit a gang-induced trauma. To escape the violence that swallowed their father will require hard work and an external support system exemplifying alternate life paths.


Back to September 4 and Danny is at his preliminary hearing. His charge for the graffiti: felony vandalism. Seven years ago Danny was in court for the exact same offense, but this time Danny isn’t just some kid who sprayed paint on a wall. This time he is a convicted felon. In between these offenses the criminal justice system has made no attempts at restorative justice, rehabilitation, or diversion, nothing to equip Danny to reinvent his life outside of a gang identity. Instead it has repeatedly enforced a punitive justice. The same hammer used on the same stubborn nail, smashed repeatedly until it is entrenched in the system.

Now the graffiti is more than just Danny’s crime. It’s his identity. He now has a six-inch tattoo on the back of his shaved head, a kind of self-sanctioned graffiti.

The bold blue letters read: HLP.

Highland Park.

References:

California Penal Code section 186.22 – STEP Act

California Penal Code section 211 – robbery

California Penal Code section 29800(a)(1) – felon possession of a firearm

California Penal Code section 594 – vandalism and graffiti 

California Penal Code section 25400 – carrying a concealed firearm

The Atlantic, “How Gangs Took Over Prisons” by Graeme Wood

The Office of Legislative Research “Consequences of a Felony Conviction” by Christopher Reinhart

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics: SPECIAL REPORT “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010” by Matthew R. Durose, Alexia D. Cooper, and Howard N. Snyder