Law uses head-on attack in assault on bloody new world
While drive-by shootings committed by young gang members are rapidly increasing in number, a decreasing number of incarcerated juveniles in the Yuba-Sutter area represents hope for the future, according to Frank Sorgea.
Sorgea is superintendent of Bi-County Juvenile Hall where, he said, the inmate population is at its lowest in 10 years.
Yuba-Sutter has less juvenile crime overall - but the crimes are more violent than they used to be, Sorgea said.
Bi-Coµunty Juvenile Hall had 28 inmates last week, compared to 78 a decade ago. That generally surprises people, he said.
"We're not going to hell in a handbasket," said Sorgea, who also runs the minimum-security Camp Singer next to Bi-County Juvenile Hall on 14th Street in Marysville. Both facilities house juveniles aged 13 to 18.
Sorgea credits area schools and the Sutter County Probation Department for intervening quickly in the lives of young people when they first become involved with the court system.
Another, less encouraging reason for the decrease is that children as young as 15 or 16 who commit drive-by shootings or other violent crimes now are more likely to be tried as adults. If convicted, they don't do their time at Bi-County Juvenile Hall, he said.
Despite escalating violence on the streets, no attempt is made to separate members of the rival Norteños and Sureños gangs once they end up in Bi-County Juvenile Hall. For one thing, separating the groups is impractical. For another, it "empowers" the gang members, he said.
"We don't acknowledge gang affiliation. We integrate the population," Sorgea said.
The result is that there are very few fights inside the walls, although rivals do give each other "mad dog stares," Sorgea said.
One reason for the lack of violence is that inmates are constantly searched for contraband - a necessity when someone always seems to be trying to fashion a weapon out of a toothbrush, he said.
"We're on it. We don't allow it to occur," Sorgea said.
Another reason is that the "domestic terror" that exists on the street makes less sense inside the walls, Sorgea said.
"You can't fight every day. We tell them, 'You're just gonna have to get along. It's entirely possible you guys can get along,'" he said.
Surprisingly, it's the "lightweight" gang members who are more likely to cause trouble. Those who've committed drive-bys know they're in trouble and tend to be less combative, he said.
"There's a lot of mythology about the gang mentality. It's not like the streets," Sorgea said.
New world for
Sutter County's recent wave of drive-by shootings has created a new world for prosecutors, a world that requires more resourcefulness, according to Assistant District Attorney Fred Schroeder.
The drive-by shootings that began afflicting Yuba County five to seven years ago became frequent in Sutter County about 11/2Rob Young 8/20/04 fraction years ago, Schroeder said.
"We really started noticing it last summer," he said.
While Asian gangs traditionally have committed most drive-bys in Yuba County, the Norteños and Sureños gangs are the instigators in Sutter County, Schroeder said.
Since the problem surfaced in Sutter County, almost every deputy district attorney has attended classes on using gang "enhancement" charges. If a prosecutor can prove a crime was gang-related, a charge that began as a misdemeanor can become a felony - and an additional five years can be tacked on to a prison sentence.
Schroeder credited the Yuba City Police Department with being "very aggressive" in tracking young criminals who, once proven to be gang members, must register as such. A gang member on probation can be charged with violating terms of probation merely for possessing gang music or regalia, he said.
Once a gang member ends up on the gang registry, "you get a hook in. You have a lot more control," Schroeder said.
Younger members often end up on the registry after admitting gang membership, he said.
The Sutter County Probation Department undoubtedly prevented many crimes by finding gang members with guns, he said.
"We've been very successful in getting weapons from probationers," he said.
Almost all gang members put on trial here are juveniles or slightly over 18, he said.
"If we get a good case with a 16- or 17-year-old, we'd probably treat them as an adult," he said.
Preying on their own
Yuba County District Attorney Patrick McGrath traced the history of gang violence in the county back to the 1980s when the Hell's Angels controlled methamphetamine distribution in California.
The level of violence escalated in the late '80s and early '90s when Asian gangs from Sacramento began shooting at Asians who lived in Yuba County.
"They preyed on their own community and culture. There were home invasions that were never reported to law enforcement," McGrath said.
Hispanic gangs of that era were neighborhood gangs interested mainly in defending their territory. A Linda gang, for instance, might battle one from Yuba City. The weapons of choice in "up close and personal" battles were fists and knives. Now, guns are the weapon of choice, he said.
"It's easy to use a gun. You don't have to get close," he said.
"Old cons" from the early days are appalled at the use of guns, often by young children, and by drive-bys, which not only endanger innocent bystanders but attract the attention of police, he said.
The Hispanic neighborhood gangs still exist but now are "subsets" in the larger war between the Norteños of Northern California and the Sureños, natives of Southern California who are making inroads in the north.
Drive-bys have forced prosecutors to become more sophisticated, said McGrath, who recalled a case in downtown Marysville in which an Asian gang member fired from a car, killing the occupant of another car.
The shooter was never found - but the driver of the first car was convicted and sent to prison because prosecutors proved that he enabled the shooter by tailing the victim's car.
Witnesses and victims in drive-by cases often are afraid to testify, making prosecution of the guilty tougher.
McGrath said the motive behind recent Asian gang violence in East Linda is not clear. But in past cases, finding and removing gang leaders has been an effective way to stop it.
"If you kill the head, the body collapses. The level of violence drops off dramatically," McGrath said.
Appeal-Democrat reporter Rob Young can be reached at 749-4710. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.