Crime & Justice

Finally, former gangsters have a chance to set the record straight

Kusema Thomas, 41, once ran with a notorious South L.A. street gang. He later renounced his membership, and he is eager to clear his name from the statewide gang member database, CalGang.
Kusema Thomas, 41, once ran with a notorious South L.A. street gang. He later renounced his membership, and he is eager to clear his name from the statewide gang member database, CalGang.

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Kusema Thomas had already been offered a job at the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, formerly the California Youth Authority. He was going to be doing what he loved – talking to kids and young people in trouble about how to change their lives.

Then he got a call. The offer, made in 2012, was withdrawn. A parole officer who was a friend told him why. Thomas, 41, was listed in a statewide gang database known as CalGang.

“I felt crushed,” Thomas said. “It was like no matter how far I had come or how far I was going, my past was still haunting me.”

Thomas readily admits he once ran with a notorious South L.A. gang called the South Side Four Tre Gangster Crips. Numerous run-ins with police landed him in the gang database.

But he renounced his membership when he was in his 20s.

“I think it’s been 14 years since I’ve had any contact with the police, no arrests, no gang affiliations,” he said. “I’ve been on the straight and narrow.”

It didn’t matter that he had gone on to work at various organizations helping young people, most recently Homeboy Industries. He was in the database.

Police have said they use the database merely to gather intelligence for investigations.

But civil libertarians have found instances where a listing in the database has prevented people from obtaining public housing or jeopardized a person’s chance of becoming a U.S. citizen.

A new law signed by Governor Brown last week requires police to inform people before adding them to the database, and allows them to challenge that decision and be taken out of the database. It also requires police to produce transparency reports on additions, removals and demographics.

A state audit found that of the 150,000 people in the database, more than 90 percent are Latino or black and a quarter could not be verified as gang members by police.

“Some people are being arbitrarily placed in the database because of the neighborhood they live in or because they have family members or friends in gangs, and they hang with with them,” said Marissa Montes, who co-directs the Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic.

There’s no way of knowing how many people will take advantage of the new law’s provision that allow people from getting out from under the dark cloud of the database because many people aren't even aware their names are in the database.

Thomas, though, always assumed he was in the database. A few years ago, he tried to go to court to get his name removed.

“I tried three times,” he said. “Nobody ever told me why I was denied.”

Under the new law, the state will set up a new system for getting out of the database and place a greater burden on police for making their case that someone belongs in it.

The law takes effect in 2018.