Laotians in the criminal justice system


Gang activity in the Laotian community has emerged mainly among Lao and Mien males, aged 15 to 21, who live in Sacramento and Fresno. In Sacramento in 1991, there were two known groups: the “Sacramento Bad Boys” in the Oak Park area and the “Polk Street Boys” in North Highlands (Hoge, 1991). Both groups sport tatoos and have been known to do grafitti. A number of gangs have also emerged in Fresno, with the “Oriental Boys” having the most CYA commitments. A Mien gang, the “Cuz,” has been reported in Oakland, although the activities of this gang have not resulted in the major crimes or repeated car thefts that have sent large numbers of Laotian youth to the CYA. Disproportionately large numbers of the CYA wards came from Fresno and Sacramento counties (see Table 6).

In addition to actual “gangs” that have names, young Laotians have informal associations with others and may engage in criminal activity. No gang is entirely of one ethnic group, and most seem to include temporary members, who are often assigned the more dangerous and brutal crimes. In 1991, Lao youths in Sacramento seemed vulnerable to this type of exploitation. Hiring outsiders in this manner has been described by experts we interviewed as a fairly typical pattern for gang activity.

As with all gang or group-related activity, whether black, Hispanic, or Asian, describing actual membership, leadership, or specific habits of each group is difficult. While Laotian youth may organize groups to commit car burglaries or assaults, they do not necessarily have a formal group “name,” which is what probation officers and others who interview prisoners use to indicate gang affiliation. Likewise, only rarely will Laotian gang members brag to authorities about any affiliation, like black or Hispanic gang members have been known to do. This lack of formal affiliation for Laotian or Vietnamese gangs is generally recognized


in law enforcement circles. To a large extent, it is the reason why the “gang enhancement” statute has not been used to prosecute Laotian gang members.

To understand Laotian gangs in a broader context, we first examined records at the Sacramento County Courthouse for adult felony arrests of persons with Laotian and Vietnamese surnames. This tabulation showed that for Mien, Lao, and Vietnamese, gang and gang-type crimes (car burglary, home invasion, and firearms violations) are the most common type of arrest (see Table 4). Second, we developed a data set based on the probation reports for 104 Laotian CYA wards who were in custody on August 11, 1991. Some of the conclusions deriving from these sources are described below.

Associations outside an ethnic group are most common between Laotian groups (such as a Hmong youth “running with” a group of Mien). The probation reports indicated occasions in which Laotian individuals ran with Hispanic, Cambodian, or Vietnamese gangs, although the evidence was not conclusive enough to identify a “trend.”

Gang names can change quickly and membership does as well. Gang activity can be described as social organization without formal leadership. Besides being without a hierarchy, Southeast Asian gangs also are “segmentary,” meaning that each group, while perhaps maintaining a broad affiliation, sustains itself and its activities independently. Such ephemeral existence means that authorities have a difficult time discovering how and by whom crimes are committed. On the other hand, the viciousness of much of the crime committed cannot be doubted, nor the fact that it is organized.

Laotian gangs, like Vietnamese gangs, are not territorial and can be mobile, particularly within the Central Valley. As with other Asian gangs, they do not generally defend turf, and may travel outside their territory to commit crimes. Groups of Mien from Sacramento have been arrested in Willows and Redding for auto burglary, and a group from Willows was arrested in Chico, also for car burglary. Ironically, the gang members who have assimilated the most into US society and who have generally rejected Laotian values seem to use traditional extended family ties when traveling from city to city, i.e., they stay with cousins in the different communities up and down the Central Valley.

Girls are often involved peripherally in Mien crimes to an extent not found with other groups. Gang members are known for making young Mien girls pregnant during their travels

up and down the Central Valley, apparently a habit that has its roots in both the traditional mores of Mien society, which condones premarital pregnancy under restricted circumstances, and a more free-wheeling gang ethos, which has its origins in the United States.

Certain girlfriends are associated with individual gang members. The first murder associated with Mien gang activity (June 1991) apparently had its origins in a dispute over a young girl. Authorities agree that Sacramento's Laotian gang members are more likely to have girlfriend problems as the focus of assaults than are black or Hispanic gangs. Indeed, for a short time, a group called the “Sacramento Bad Girls” had junior high school-age Mien girls as members. This group was an auxiliary of sorts to Vietnamese, Mien, and Chinese male gang members from San Francisco and Sacramento, a group of girls who enjoyed “partying” with male Mien youth with gang affiliations.

How Mien Elders and Adults View Gangs. Mien elders take a dim view of the activities of Mien gangs. Undoubtedly, a disproportionate amount of the crime committed by Mien gangs is committed against other Mien, with much of this crime, which seems to include both car burglary and home robberies, going unreported. Mien elders and adults (the two older-age cohorts) are not usually aware of the specifics of gang activity, such as colors and names. Rather, they view the problem as being a general one with “gangs,” and many blame “groups” of young males for specific criminal acts.

Mien elders blame the emergence of gang activity on a lax criminal justice system. Traditional justice in Laos is remembered as being swift, harsh, and effective (see Appendix A). There, social order is valued above individual liberty, so there is an emphasis on setting an example through swift punishment, rather than on following a meticulous process to identify specific individuals involved with a specific act, along with their relative degree of responsibility.

The American focus on individual responsibility is very different from the traditional way of assigning blame and responsibility to a lineage or clan. In the traditional manner, the “guilty” culprit would be the entire family of the person who profited from the crime. Given such a world view, it would be reasonable to, say, shoot a fleeing burglar in the back in order to deter further criminal activity, whether or not that burglar was himself wholly responsible.

Such incidents have happened in the Oak Park area of Sacramento. The negative reaction of the police to such events has shaped how Mien elders perceive police effectiveness.

The Mien world view, which considers the purpose of law and the legal system to be social control and the preservation of social order, helps to shape their perceptions of the American justice system. This contrasts with the American legal system, which is designed to preserve individual liberties. The American legal principles of bail, evidence, innocence, and trials are not well understood, and as a consequence the prevalent belief is that the police and legal system are “soft on crime.”

7. A persistent story we heard in law enforcement circles was that Southeast Asians considered bail to be a “bribe” to let individuals go free illegally. There is some indication that at one time this was believed by part of the Vietnamese community as well. However, we did not hear this misconception from Laotians in summer 1991.

Reconciling the Laotian and American views of justice should be a focus for relations between the police and traditional groups like the Mien as they integrate into American society (see Appendix B).

How Children and Youth View Mien Gangs. Young people are well aware of gang activity and its role in American society. Forming gangs, whether or not criminal activity is involved, is a means of expressing a tough-guy or -girl identity to peers as well as the other youth in the multi-ethnic neighborhoods where the Mien live. As a means of social expression, gang-type activity in the Mien community is American in its origin. Patterns for such activity were acquired in the United States, sometimes in response to Vietnamese, black, or Hispanic gang activity, and were not brought here from Southeast Asia.

The presence of gangs in Laotian communities creates socially difficult situations for teens. Peer pressure to join or participate can be intense. The violent behavior prevalent of gangs means that fear restricts how members and nonmembers interact. Certainly fear limited the number of youth who were willing to discuss gang activity with us. The young people we interviewed who were not in gangs preferred not to acknowledge that gangs had any impact on their lives. We believe that the high crime rates and grafitti prevalent in gang-occupied apartment complexes tell a different story (see Appendix C).

About this text
Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives. The UC Irvine Libraries, Main Library 5th Floor, PO Box 19557, Irvine, CA 92623-9557;
Title: Laotians in the criminal justice system
By:  Cohen, Lawrence E, Author, California Policy Seminar, Author, Waters, Tony, Author
Date: 1993
Contributing Institution: Special Collections and Archives. The UC Irvine Libraries, Main Library 5th Floor, PO Box 19557, Irvine, CA 92623-9557;
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