County Attorney Defends Southlawn Gang Injunction, Compares Neighborhood to "Physically Abused Woman"

In a letter that County Attorney Vince Ryan penned to the Houston American Civil Liberties Union this week, he swears that banning people for up to four years from their community is not a punishment for whatever they did in the past.

In fact, he compares the Southlawn gang injunction to a protective order issued in a domestic violence case in order to protect a “physically abused woman.” The battered woman in this analogy would be the entire community surrounding the Southlawn apartments in southeast Houston, and the abusive spouse would evidently be the 46 black men with ties to the neighborhood who have in the past been convicted of crimes — roughly 20 of the men aren't even living in the neighborhood right now because they're in prison. Ryan writes that the injunction, which effectively banishes the men from the neighborhood under threat of arrest, is not designed to punish these people, but rather that, “as a preliminary matter, the State must protect the safety of all in Southlawn.”

It's a safety plan that Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, called “blatantly unconstitutional.” Those named in the injunction would be banned from talking to someone on the sidewalk, from visiting their grandmas, from asking a stranger for directions to the store. The ACLU had asked Ryan, as an example, what if someone just needs to pick up his cousin from school? And Ryan responded: “If a defendant is, as your letter suggests hypothetically, in fact 'picking up a cousin from school,' but doing so as part of an effort to recruit that cousin into criminal gang life, the State will seek to stop him.”

Burke insists the injunction violates the First Amendment given the injunction bans every form of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly for the 46 men in that area“This is among the most heavy-handed action government could take,” she said.

Whether the gang injunction goes through will be decided in court next month. But before then, the defendants' attorneys and community advocates are trying to find a way to get the county attorney's office to drop the injunction and instead provide the defendants rehabilitative and job-finding services. (The Harris County District Attorney's Office is also a plaintiff in the suit, but several attorneys and advocates familiar with the situation told the Press that DA Anderson is not pursuing the injunction as fervently as Ryan is.) The gang injunction does, in fact, seek to offer those rehabilitative tools to the defendant; the deal is, if they can prove that they've made efforts to become good, productive citizens with jobs and don't associate with their alleged gangs anymore, then they will be dismissed from the suit. This week, the county attorney's office filed a new motion asking the court to hire a “community counselor” whose sole responsibility will be to determine whether a defendant should be allowed to return to the community.

Which defense attorney Monique Sparks says is troublesome: “It gives too much power to one person to decide you're worthy, you're not. You got a good job and go to church, you don't."

Sparks said that this gang injunction is not like a domestic-abuse protective order at all, in part because the community is not asking for it. On Sunday, the ACLU canvassed the neighborhood and collected more than 200 signatures from residents who said they were not in support of the injunction; Burke said that the civil liberties organization is far from finished knocking on doors. Terence O'Rourke, with the county attorney's office, however, told us that there are “scores of people afraid to leave their home to go to the grocery store."

O'Rourke said that his office is pursuing the gang injunction so intensely because the criminal justice system simply isn't doing enough to protect people on the streets, particularly in the Southlawn area. He called this particular gang injunction “the cutting edge of criminal justice in the United States." "What we are attempting to do with this lawsuit is change the paradigm from mass incarceration to an opportunity to protect society and open avenues for opportunity for people who heretofore have only had the option of running through the turnstiles of criminal justice,” he said.

Still, O'Rourke said the county attorney's office understands people's concerns that the gang injunction infringes on the defendants' liberties.

“All of us swear our oath to the Constitution and its laws, and we are profoundly respectful of the responsibility we have in protecting the individual rights," he said. Especially the individual rights of people who are unemployed and face many barriers because of their criminal record, he added.

That's why, O'Rourke said, the county attorney's office has established a way for the men to be removed from the suit if they take advantage of the as-yet-undetermined jobs programs and services. Asked whether labeling them gang members and blocking them from the community might further impede their chances of becoming productive citizens, O'Rourke said, “Yes, and if you take a look at the people in this case, my guess is that this is the least of the problems they face in their life.” He reiterated that the county is willing to reconsider and let them back into their neighborhoods if they can prove to a "community counselor" that they've denounced gang life and can hold down a job.

Sparks insists that, if that's the goal — helping people with criminal records stabilize their lives — then the gang injunction works contrary to that goal.  She pointed to Ryan's comment in his letter to the ACLU in which he assumes a defendant picking up a cousin from school may be recruiting him for a gang, saying it seems to illustrate a lack of commitment to revitalizing the community.

"If that's your thinking," she said, "it seems to show that you don't think people are salvageable." 

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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn