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From gang member to team player

Luis Aroche's rough youth prepared him for an unusual career: The 'alternative sentencing planner' helps the San Francisco D.A. decide who needs lockup and who deserves another chance.

January 07, 2013|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Luis Aroche poses in front of fading gang graffitti in San Francisco's Mission District. The former gang member has been reinvented as an alternative sentencing planner for the San Francisco district attorney as part of an effort to keep low-level offenders from ending up back behind bars.
Luis Aroche poses in front of fading gang graffitti in San Francisco's… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — Luis Aroche learned about violence at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School, across from the projects where his friend Carl lived.

He remembers sitting down at his desk and seeing his teacher, Mrs. Foster, in tears. His class had just finished the Pledge of Allegiance.

"Carl was playing on the swings and got shot," Aroche said. "And died. Kindergarten. He got found laying in a pool of blood in the park," Aroche paused. Swallowed. Started up again. "He was my desk buddy. He would go with me to the bathroom. And now, Carl wasn't there.

"That was my first experience of loss. And I didn't understand it. To this day, I don't understand it."

Aroche since has become something of an expert on violence — as victim, perpetrator and now as part of a hoped-for solution. Last year, San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon hired the former gang member to be his office's first "alternative sentencing planner," part of an effort to keep offenders from ending up back behind bars.

The position, criminal justice experts say, has no equivalent in any prosecutor's office in the country.

And Aroche is as singular as his job. An Aztec skull tattoo stretches down his right forearm to his hand, its grimace partly wiped away by laser removal. The day his juvenile record was sealed, he says, was the happiest of his life.

Today, he helps prosecutors figure out who among San Francisco's low-level offenders deserves a jail cell and who deserves a second chance.

He knows a lot about both.

::

If you were Aroche, 12 years old and living in the Mission District in 1990 — when gangs and crack cocaine meant funerals were as commonplace as quinceañeras — you got a tattoo, cut school and drank beer. You thought a stint in Pelican Bay State Prison was like going off to "Stanford or Yale." You practiced how to sit and talk and smoke like the toughest prisoners.

"We would learn how to iron our clothes using a comb, 'cause that's how you iron your pants in prison," Aroche said. "You iron it with the teeth of the comb … and then you put it underneath the mattress."

Aroche's first tattoo was a small cross on his left hand, in the soft web between thumb and forefinger. He got it in an alleyway not far from the studio apartment where he slept on the floor with his five brothers, three sisters, the occasional niece or nephew. His parents got the bed in the corner.

His Salvadoran mother was a chambermaid at a Fisherman's Wharf motel, his Puerto Rican father a security guard in the Navy shipyards.

And his older brothers? They would disappear for years. Aroche didn't know why until his father took him to visit San Quentin State Prison. They were "main men" in a notorious Northern California prison gang. When they were out, they were "the mayors of the Mission."

By the time Aroche was 15, he was drinking so much and incarcerated so often that he gave himself a test every night before he went to sleep. If he put out his hand and felt warm, smooth drywall, he knew he was home. If he felt cold, slick concrete, he was in custody.

One night he ended up in the hospital. He'd been drunk, hanging out in Lucky Alley, when a car drove up and the doors flew open. Aroche saw his friend get sliced with a machete. Gunshots rang out.

"And I remember some guy grabbing me and hitting me with a crowbar and stabbing me in my stomach," he said. "And I could feel the pierce of my stomach, just ripping me open.... And I thought, this is it. This is it. This is my life."

::

At the computer in his spartan office at the Hall of Justice, Aroche is poring over the official tale of another life in the balance: a 28-year-old woman on a downward spiral.

The alcoholic, meth-addicted prostitute had lost custody of her toddler son, habitually robbed her aging parents, been in and out of rehab. She also suffered from postpartum depression.

The first time she accosted her father, her parents decided not to press charges. When she was arrested after breaking into their home last year, they refused a second time. Then in August, high on meth, she broke in again.

"The mom was just, 'I'm tired of this.... I'm going to prosecute. I want my daughter to get the help, and I think she needs a stern hand,'" Aroche said.

The young woman was charged with two counts of felony first-degree residential burglary, with enhancements including elder abuse.

"The prosecution is like, 'This woman can easily see prison time,'" Aroche said as he scrolled through her case. "She burglarizes, is verbally abusive with her parents when she's under the influence. And she's always under the influence. But the prosecution also wondered, 'Will state prison rehabilitate her?'"

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