Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Topic 3:
Court Solutions

A juvenile gang member's first appearance in court is often a pivotal event because he or she will cause a "record" of their appearance to be created. That record will then follow the juvenile until he or she becomes an adult. In some states, juvenile records are sealed when juveniles become adults - their record can not be opened or used against them should they reoffend and appear in criminal (adult) court. Adults' records, on the other hand, are not sealed.

The trip to court is pivotal for adults and juveniles alike because, in addition to creating a "record" on the individual which may be used in future proceedings, the court determines, through its sentencing decisions, whether offenders are to be incarcerated, sentenced to treatment in the community, or given some alternative sentence. For juveniles, a trip to juvenile court is likely to result in a sentence to probation if the court determines the juvenile violated a law. For adult gang members (16, 17, or 18 years of age or older depending upon the state's definition of an adult), a trip to court may mean a variety of things.

Criminal courts can sentence an offender to a period of incarceration or impose an alternative, community-based sentence. Given what most prosecutors and judges know about the impact of incarcerating offenders, sentences to incarceration are considered a last resort. Rather than deterring offenders from future offending, periods of incarceration may exacerbate the situation.

While incarcerated, inmates are exposed to the brutality of life in confinement (as victims of abuse by other inmates and prison staff) and suffer from discrimination in employment and housing when returned to the community. Unless gang offenders have committed particularly heinous offenses, prosecutors and judges often prefer to impose an alternative to incarceration if it has any promise of effectively modifying the offender's behavior. The next topic in Into the Abyss is alternative sentencing. This section, however, focuses on what prosecutors and judges could do to reduce gang activity and youth violence other than use alternative sentencing. It also explores what they could do to reduce witness and victim intimidation by gangs.

Click on the topics below or 
continue reading down the page ...

bulletProsecutorial Solutions
bulletJudicial Solutions
bulletWitness and Victim Intimidation

Prosecutorial Solutions

Prosecutors can play a significant role in reducing and preventing juvenile involvement with drugs and related criminal activities [and in] their involvement with criminal gangs and youth violence overall. ... [P]rosecutors' efforts that go beyond the traditional functions of investigation and prosecution, especially when they are coordinated with other agencies' activities and involve the community at large, are much more effective in increasing public safety and keeping young people out of trouble.

Many of the responsibilities involved in implementing such programs require little more than creativity, the willingness to work with others, and some extra time. Using JAIBG (Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant Program) funds as seed money to plan, develop, and begin a more comprehensive, coordinated program to reduce the more serious juvenile crimes in a community can go a long way. (Gramckow and Tompkins, 1999, page)

bulletEstablishing the role of gang prosecutor:
The impact of prosecutors with specialized knowledge of gangs and gang-related legislation may be enhanced through caseload specialization. Candice Kane, author of Prosecutor: Technical Assistance Manual, "urges prosecutors to assign specially selected and trained assistants to gang cases." 
(Kane, 1992, page)

When the same prosecutor tries all gang-related cases, over time he or she will accumulate valuable intelligence on the gangs. Knowing, for example, who "runs" with who may help a prosecutor in establishing a gang connection between one offender and another. Depending upon the jurisdiction in question, being able to identify an offender as a gang member may allow for enhanced punishment.

Similarly, when one prosecutor (or more, if needed) continues to present cases, judges will become better informed about the gang situation in the community because the prosecutor is better able to inform them. By aligning gang-dedicated prosecutors with gang-dedicated police, juvenile officers, and probation/parole officers, the community has a much better chance of reducing gang activity and youth violence.

bulletCreate a District Attorney (Prosecutor) Gang Unit:
The Orange County (CA) District Attorney
has created a Gang Unit within that office that specialized in prosecuting gang cases. It was created in 1988 to provide a vertical prosecution approach to all gang-involved, violent felony case filings. In vertical prosecution, "one attorney handles all aspects of a complex case, from review and filing through trial or plea to sentencing." (Source) The unit handles gang-motivated adult felony cases and serious juvenile gang cases and files charges on all cases involving guns and gangs. There's an additional Victim-Witness Services Team that assists the prosecutor. (Source)

bulletPracticing a policy of restorative justice:
Prosecutors and judges could support the introduction and wider use of a balanced and restorative justice philosophy (where the punishment fits the harm done and compensates the victims for their loss). When confront
ed by their victims in a process of mediation, youthful offenders often - and for the first time - realize the impact of their behavior on innocent victims and, as a result, modify their behavior positively. Sentences which provide for meaningful community service may benefit both the offender and the community and should be imposed wherever appropriate.

bulletHelp reduce gun violence through cooperative efforts:
Police, probation/parole officers, and prosecutors in Boston (MA) identified the core, violent youthful offenders in that city then visited them at night, by surprise, to let them know they have been identified for an intensive monitoring project. The project is known as the Boston Gun Project and has been identified as one of several "Promising Strategies" for reducing gun violence by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Offenders are offered two choices, go straight (and resources are provided to help them develop job skills and get a job) or stay on their current path. If they choose the latter, it is explained that they will be aggressively prosecuted. In fact, their cases will be prioritized for immediate disposition and they will be dealt with harshly.

bulletSupporting community-based prevention and intervention efforts:
"The prosecutor is ... urged to work closely with colleagues in the criminal justice system - especially police and probation officers, and representatives of the schools, local businesses, social service organizations, community-based youth agencies, grassroots organizations, parents and youth themselves to plan, coordinate, and implement an effective strategy to reduce gang violence. When appropriate, the prosecutor is encouraged to take the lead in mobilizing the community to respond to the gang problem."  (Kane, 1992, page)

Field Note: The chairperson of this community-wide task force on gangs and youth violence is the county's chief prosecutor. Although he is an experienced trial lawyer and has been successful at winning death penalty cases, his first priority is to support efforts which are aimed at prevention and intervention, particularly among the community's youth. He even allocates a portion of his annual budget to pay for mailings and brochures developed to educate the community about the availability of prevention and intervention programs.

Most prosecutors are in elected positions and are, therefore, sensitive to the demands of the communities they serve. When the public makes its wishes known, prosecutors often comply - especially if they want to be re-elected.

Judicial Solutions

Judges have the potential for doing a great deal of good in a community regarding the treatment (prevention and intervention) of gang members. Through their power of judicial mandate, they may exhibit judicial leadership - mandating that certain services be offered or expanded on behalf of those in need of service. Failure to comply with judicial mandates may be the issuance of a contempt of court decree - a consequence which motivates communities to respond in a positive manner to the judge's wishes.

According to Kurlychek, et al. (1999) the juvenile court judge must first "lead by example by stressing accountability in all dispositions ordered by the court. Second, the court can lead by direction—internally directing court procedures and resources to be consistent with the goal of accountability and externally directing the development and implementation of desired service programs. Finally, the juvenile court judge can lead coordination and education efforts by reaching out to the community and advocating for the development of collaborations to better serve the juvenile justice system's clients." (Kurlychek, et al, 1999, page)

bulletBringing delinquent youths to court at the earliest age possible:
Every effort should be made to encourage law enforcement officers and juvenile prosecutors to bring to court youths who violate the law at an early age. "Court intervention should start early in an attempt to interrupt developmental pathways before serious, violent, and chronic delinquency emerges." (Kurlychek, et al., 1999, page

bulletCreating a Drug Court:
"Drug courts use the coercive power of the criminal justice system to achieve abstinence and alter criminal behavior through a combination of judicial supervision, treatment, drug testing, incentives, sanctions, and case management."
(Center for Drug Court Innovationpage, also see

"According to Karen Freeman-Wilson, President of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the philosophy which drives the drug court concept is that "coerced treatment works, that [the courts] serve society best by addressing underlying challenges faced by criminal offender, and that continuously incarcerating drug-addicted, non-violent offenders has no long term benefit for the offender or society." (page)

Given the relationship between drug offenses and gang affiliation, the drug court concept may help reduce gang activity by reducing gang members' drug dependency and addiction.

bulletSponsoring the creation of a Teen Court for minor and first-time offenders:

"There are four models of teen courts now in operation: Adult Judge - An adult serves as judge and rules on legal terminology and courtroom procedure. Youth serve as attorneys, jurors, clerks, bailiffs, etc.; Youth Judge - This is similar to the adult judge model, but a youth serves as judge; Tribunal- Youth attorneys present the case to a panel of three youth judges, who decide the appropriate disposition for the defendant. A jury is not used; and Peer Jury - This model does not use youth attorneys. The case is presented to a youth jury by a youth or adult. The youth jury then questions the defendant directly. 

"Forty-seven percent of all teen courts use the adult judge model, 12% use the peer jury model, 10% use the tribunal model, and 9% use the youth judge model. The remaining 22% use more than one case-processing model. 

"Most teen courts do not determine the guilt or innocence of youth. Rather, they serve as diversion alternatives and youth must admit to the charges against them in order to qualify for teen court. 

"Teen courts usually handle first-time offenders charged with offenses such as theft, misdemeanor assault, disorderly conduct, and possession of alcohol. The majority of teen courts (87%) reported they 'rarely' or 'never' accepted youth with prior arrest records, and 98% reported that they 'rarely' or 'never' accepted youth with prior felony arrests. Respondents reported that, on average, 24% of their cases involved youth under age 14 and 66% involved youth under age 16." (Butts, et al., 1999, page)

You can learn how to implement a teen court program and read up on the latest research on their effectiveness.

bulletAdopting an activist position by visiting community-based agencies:
Through personal involvement, judges learn more about community-based anti-violence and anti-gang programs, the community's youths, and the schools. Judges who take an activist position and visit the community-based programs to which they sentence offenders, speak to students in the schools, and in other ways involve themselves in the community stimulate the residents to take action and help further a sense of professionalism and community involvement among other professionals in the justice system.   

bulletMandating the creation of needed services:
Mandate the creation of community-based services needed to reduce youth violence and gangs and additional support for those which already do. Among the known predictors of violent and gang behavior in youth are school failure (establishing the need for tutoring or special education programs), substance abuse (establishing the need for preventive education and early identification or intervention in such behavior), and violence in the home (aimed directly at the child or at others in the home). The court can mandate the establishment or enhancement of community-based services which address these causative factors.

bulletImposing special probation conditions for gang offenders:
The Gang Offender Probation Program in Houston "was developed to improve judicial oversight of gang members on probation by partnering probation and law enforcement officers for increased supervision. More intensive probation requirements were imposed on gang members, including participation in gang offender treatment programs. Through close monitoring of the activities of gang members under supervision, the courts are able to provide more assistance to first-time offenders."

Witness and Victim Intimidation

Regardless of what prosecutors and judges may do in court, if witnesses to gang-related crimes and the victims of them refuse to appear in court, most cases will be dismissed. The problem, of course, has to do with gang member intimidation of witnesses and victims of their criminal activity. I would guess that nearly every prosecutor in the United States has had to face problems related to intimidation. By reading Preventing Gang and Drug-Related Witness Intimidation prosecutors may find a way to protect them.

The Prosecuting Attorneys Office in San Francisco (CA) has a Gang Violence Unit designed to target the problem of violence by gang members. The greatest difficulty they face is getting witnesses to testify.

The biggest challenge facing prosecutors in gang cases is to secure the cooperation of witnesses. Since most gang violence is "gang on gang," the witnesses to drive-by shootings or gang fights tend to be gang members themselves. Members of the victim gang often feel that they will "take it out on the street," and decline to help the police or D.A. because it is seen as "snitching."

Members of the perpetrator gang themselves often face potential criminal liability, and would rather go to jail themselves that "rat" on a fellow gang member. Witnesses and victims who are themselves not affiliated with any gangs tend to fear retaliation if they cooperate, particularly if they live in the gang's neighborhood.

Many witnesses distrust governmental authority, either because of questionable immigration status, or because they have recently immigrated from countries where government agents are feared.

Members of the Gang Violence Unit are trained in dealing with these issues, and in effectively working with recalcitrant witnesses in order to be able to present the cases in court. (The Gang Violence Unit, page)  

According to a study by Finn and Healey (1996)

Police administrators and county attorneys can reduce [barriers to relocating witnesses] significantly by increasing the funding available for relocation activities and by negotiating personally for permanent assistance from the other agencies ..., including local housing authorities, social services agencies, and out-of-jurisdiction law enforcement agencies. (Finn and Healey, 1996, p. 38)

Although preventing intimidation in the courtroom and in jails and prisons may appear to be beyond the control of prosecutors and police investigators, there are a variety of ways in which they can work with courts and correctional systems to significantly enhance the security of witnesses who will testify if they feel they can be protected against retaliation. (Finn and Healey, 1996, p. 47)

Community-wide witness intimidation is one of the most frustrating and seemingly intractable problems for police and prosecutors. However, some jurisdictions report that community outreach efforts, especially community-based policing and prosecution, can improve relations between citizens and the criminal justice system and thereby increase witness cooperation. (Finn and Healey, 1996, p. 55)

Prosecutors and judges will use community-based alternatives to incarceration only when they are available. Without such programs, there is little they can do other than put offenders on probation or sentence them to a period of incarceration. Our next topic is the identification and description of several different alternative sentences.


Additional Resources: If you'd like to know more about the drug court concept, visit the site of the Center for Drug Court Innovation and the site of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. You can even visit the site of the New South Wales, Australia, drug court.

An earlier chapter dealt with gang-related legislation.

You can learn more about the prosecuting of gang activity, federal involvement in prosecuting gang activity, RICO charges, and much more as found in the U.S. Department of Justice's Criminal Resource Manual.

Prosecuting Gangs: A National Assessment is an instructive document for lay citizens as well as prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system.

© 2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.