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.
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.