Luis Aroche, 34, uses his experience as a former gang member to devise alternative sentences for young offenders. (Photo courtesy of Alex Bastian)

In San Francisco, former gang member helps give young offenders a second chance

In the world of criminal justice, Luis Aroche is something of an anomaly. Even though he works for the San Francisco district attorney’s office, Aroche fights to keep felons out of prison.

Take, for example, the case of a teenage felon in 2011: an intoxicated 19-year-old Mexican-American,  brandishing a BB gun that resembled a semi-automatic weapon, leaped out of a car and set off on a midnight robbing spree in the Mission District of San Francisco.

Few prosecutors would have considered anything less than three years of state prison time for such a crime. But Aroche’s responsibility as an alternative sentencing planner–one of only a handful in the nation– is to look past the second-degree robbery charge and delve into the defendant’s back story. Aroche recommended anger management sessions and parenting classes, because the 19-year-old perpetrator, whose name he declined to disclose, had no prior crimes, and was about to become a new father.

“You have your murderers, your rapists, they belong in prison,” says Aroche. “We’re sending a kid there who is 19 and stole a couple of cars and credit cards. Now he’s meeting murderers, gang leaders. What do you think he’s going to come back with?”

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Aroche is charting out a unique precedent for district attorney’s offices in the United States.  Traditionally, defense teams conduct the research and ask that a defendant pursue substance abuse treatment or a G.E.D. instead of prison time. But with over 150,000 inmates packed into the state’s 33 prisons, Californians on all sides of the court are pushing for more options.

“Incarcerating people is very expensive economically and socially,” says San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. A high-school-dropout who later became the chief of the San Francisco Police Department, Gascón spearheaded the city’s alternative sentencing  initiative. “If we can reduce the  likelihood of re-offending, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

But critics say such initiatives could be detrimental. Victims of the serious offenses that come to Aroche’s desk may not be pacified by the perception that the defendant has been let off easy.

“San Francisco is breaking new ground if they’re saying to victims of robbery, ‘He was young. He was drunk. What we really need to do is try and help him,'” says Scott Burns, president of the National District Attorneys Association. “If you think that type of behavior is going to change, that’s naive.'”

Alternative sentencing has a long tradition in prosecution circles, but has gained prevalence in the wake of California Governor Edmund Brown’s 2011 Realignment legislation. After federal courts demanded the state shed thousands of inmates, Brown proposed funding to reduce the number of low-level inmates cycling through the state prison system. State prison officials say they gladly welcomed alternative sentencing as a way to address offenses without jail time.

Luis Aroche outside of his workplace at  the San Francisco district attorney's office. (Photo courtesy of Alex Bastian)

Luis Aroche outside of his workplace at the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. (Photo courtesy of Alex Bastian)

“People are different and so are their motives for committing crimes,” says Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Alternative sentences shows there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”

Aroche intimately understands what the youth he helps keep out of prison go through. The youngest in a family of ten, he envied his older brothers for making money in the local gang while his father, a security guard from Puerto Rico, and his mother, a maid from El Salvador, stressed over the family’s finances.

Aroche joined a Latino gang and drank, took drugs and clashed with rival gang members. As he was a skilled boxer who had competed in Golden Gloves, he was often designated to fight for the gang’s turf. Once, while drinking in an alleyway with his friends, he was ambushed by a rival gang. “One guy gets out of the car and strikes my friend with a machete and slices him,” he says. “I got cornered and beat up with a crowbar and stabbed in the stomach.”

The violence shook Aroche up, but also helped him realize the hopelessness of his situation. “You see so much death you become numb to it,” he says.

After several run-ins with the police, Aroche was sent to a juvenile detention center where he read his first book: “Down These Mean Streets,” a memoir by Puerto Rican and Cuban author Piri Thomas about life in El Barrio in Harlem. The book, as well as the news that his older brother would be spending his life in prison, changed Aroche’s outlook. When he was let out, at 18, he told his probation officer he was ready for a job. He went on to attend San Francisco State University and soon found his calling in social work, assisting high-risk juvenile youth.

He says his work immerses him in a part of the Latino community that is largely neglected.“I represent the other side of the Latino community. Not the middle class or those fortunate enough to get a better education, but a Latino who came from the bottom and knows how to go up,” he says. “I represent the power of the second chance.”

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