Across the country, many District Attorneys’ offices have established specialized units to prosecute complex criminal cases involving gang-related offenses. Through the use of continuous prosecution and smaller caseloads, the units are designed to address issues that usually arise in criminal prosecution of gang offenders, such as evidentiary and logistical problems associated with multiple victims and suspects, lack of cooperation between juvenile and adult courts, and witness reluctance to aid law enforcement and prosecution.
The Hardcore Gang Investigations Unit was created by the Los Angeles, California, District Attorney’s Office to selectively prosecute cases involving serious, violent, gang-related offenses. The unit is tasked with targeting gang offenders who have a history of committing violent offenses and prosecuting them in either juvenile or criminal court. The purpose of the unit is to (1) identify and apprehend violent hardcore gang members and monitor their cases as they progress through the criminal justice system; (2) work with victims, witnesses, parents, and other involved parties to support them in their efforts to eliminate the gang problem; and (3) aid the efforts of other criminal justice and governmental agencies that are also working to handle and reduce the violence and crime related to gangs. The unit is a self-contained part of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office and began prosecuting gang-related felony cases in 1979.
The first attorneys selected from the regular prosecutorial staff at the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office volunteered for assignment to the unit. Characteristics of attorneys that were later sought included highly motivated, assertive, energetic, willing to learn, willing to spend the necessary time on preparing these types of cases, eager to get involved, and critically, an ability to cooperate and develop the necessary rapport with staff, other agencies, and witnesses. The unit started off with seven prosecutors and by 1983 had increased in size to 22 specialized unit prosecutors.
In addition to the prosecutors of Operation Hardcore, the unit is supported by District Attorney Investigators. They are tasked with providing follow-up support to the police officers who bring gang-related cases to the District Attorney’s office. In some cases the investigators assume full responsibility for the investigation or reinvestigation of case elements. They work closely with the prosecuting attorneys, especially in cases of identification or witness relocation.
Prosecutors in the Hardcore Unit select their cases based on criteria (such as police reports or prior convictions) that are designed to help identify individuals who have an established pattern of criminal behavior and go on to commit a serious violent offense. Cases are usually brought to their attention by law enforcement with the goal of early unit involvement.
Each prosecutor is given several benefits, such as a reduced caseload, additional investigative support from the police and other agencies, and the ability to work an assigned case on a continuous basis from beginning to end. These benefits help prosecutors work more closely with witnesses, allow for early case preparation, and restrict any settlements to well before the actual trial. Due to the specialized nature of the Hardcore Unit, they are able to use selective prosecution to focus on aspects of gang prosecutions that normal caseloads and time pressures would not ordinarily allow.
An essential part of building cases against gang members is witness identification and cooperation. Prosecutors in Operation Hardcore work closely with witnesses to develop a rapport to gain their support and testimony for trial. Due to the benefits listed previously, prosecutors are able to take the time to meet with witnesses and reassure them and impress upon them the importance of their cooperation. Prosecutors have funds available to relocate witnesses or provide them with additional police protection. They use taped or sworn testimony from witnesses to support their cases against the defendant(s) and are encouraged to prosecute in cases of witness intimidation. Prosecutors are supported by additional full time staff members that assist witnesses and their families in finding new housing or even a new job.
Prosecutors in the unit develop an expertise in gang relations and gain a better understanding of the lifestyle, allegiance, and family relationships that contribute to offender motives for committing serious offenses. This expertise aids prosecutors in creating cases against gang-affiliated offenders and helps them to convince juries of the credibility of their argument at trial.
Dahmann (1983) used an interrupted time-series design with comparison groups to study the effectiveness of the Hardcore Gang Investigations Unit in Los Angeles, California using data compiled between 1976 and 1980. Because there was limited data for juvenile cases, the analysis focused on the data accumulated from adult prosecutions. The study compared three groups:
- Pre-Hardcore No Program Group: this included cases prosecuted between 1976 and 1978, before Operation Hardcore began (Group 1).
- Post-Hardcore No Program Group: included cases prosecuted between 1979 and 1980 by regular trial attorneys and not in the Operation Hardcore Program (Group 2).
- Post-Hardcore Program Group: included cases that were prosecuted by Operation Hardcore attorneys (Treatment Group).
Data was collected in a three-step process, which began with identifying cases with criminal events (i.e., gang-related murder incidents), then identifying suspects, and finally, creating a list of suspects whose criminal charges had been accepted or rejected by the prosecution. Data collected from police and prosecutorial records included the characteristics of suspects, victims, and criminal justice handling. The study compared groups based on the type of disposition, the strength of the conviction, and outcome at sentencing.
Between 1976 and 1980 there were 526 incidents of homicide attributed to street gangs. These incidents involved a total of 1,016 suspects, of which 660 were identified by the police and 340 were charged by prosecutors. A total of 223 criminal cases were filed in response to the incidents. The suspects of these gang perpetrated homicide incidents were primarily male (less than 5 percent were female over the 5-year period). Approximately 20.3 percent of the suspects were under 18 years of age, 44.7 percent were between 18 and 21 years of age, and 35.0 percent were over 21. The majority of the suspects were Hispanic (64.5 percent), followed by Black (31.6 percent), White (2.7 percent), and Other (1.1. percent).
The study by Pyrooz, Wolfe, and Spahn (2010) further analyzed the data collected from the original study by Dahmann in 1983. This study examined the prosecutorial decisions that led to the rejection of gang-related homicide charges from Operation Hardcore between the years 1976-1980. The primary outcomes were to identify victim, suspect, and incident characteristics that were associated with the decisions not to pursue charges against a suspect, as well as what was the likelihood of lower case rejection for gang-related cases prosecuted by a specialized unit. Secondary outcomes included examining the effectiveness of the Hardcore Gang Investigations Unit and better understanding the roles that gangs play in the criminal justice system.
Researchers were able to access data across three distinct data sets: (1) victim based, (2) suspect based, and (3) incident based. They then merged this data into a suspect-referenced data file, where they used the unique incident identification number to match the incident to the suspect identification number. They excluded any cases that did not result in death, cases that had no death information, and cases where there was no suspect information. This left a total of 1,002 suspects. They also eliminated cases where no suspects were arrested. This left a total sample size of 614 suspects who were involved in gang-related homicides in Los Angeles between 1976 and 1980, and whose cases were sent to the District Attorney’s Office for a charging decision. A series of logistic regression models was used to analyze the data sets.
The 1983 study by Dahmann had several significant findings. There was a statistically significant decrease in the dismissal rate. Only 5 percent of cases in the Operation Hardcore group were dismissed versus 20 percent in Group 1 (Pre-Operation Hardcore No Program Group) and 18 percent in Group 2 (Post-Operation Hardcore No Program Group).
Cases prosecuted through Operation Hardcore had statistically significant higher rates of offenders being convicted (95 percent) versus 71 percent for Group 1 and 78 percent for Group 2.
There were no significant differences in the rate of pleas. The rate of pleas for the Operation Hardcore cases was 68 percent versus 41 percent for Group 1 and 63 percent for Group 2.
The Operation Hardcore group saw a statistically significant increase in the rate of incarceration (93 percent) versus Group 1 (64 percent) and Group 2 (74 percent) among all defendants who were prosecuted.
Pyrooz, Wolfe, and Spahn (2010) found that when holding all study variables at their mean, the likelihood of case rejection was 22 percent for cases prosecuted by the Operation Hardcore Specialized unit, compared to a 51 percent rejection rate if not prosecuted by the unit.