Vertical Prosecution—Operation Hardcore — 3/13/2017
In 1979, with support from the federal government, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office established a specialized prosecution unit devoted to violent gang crimes: Operation Hardcore (now known as the Hardcore Gang Investigations Unit). Prosecutors handled only gang-related cases, and their caseloads were reduced. Cases were handled vertically, or on a continuous basis, by prosecutors, and additional investigative support was provided (e.g., funds for witness relocation). Los Angeles provides a unique context to understand how one of the largest district attorney’s offices in the United States tackled a growing and increasingly violent gang problem. Little is known about the effectiveness of specialized gang prosecution units in the United States.
In a study published recently, Pyrooz and colleagues (2011) (http://cjp.sagepub.com/content/22/1/3.abstract) reanalyzed data collected by Judith Dahmann (1982) in her original report, which showed that with vertical prosecution, Operation Hardcore produced more convictions and a higher rate of state prison commitments. Based on 614 murder cases forwarded to the District Attorney’s office for charging decisions between 1976 and 1980, the research team focused on the offender, the victim, and incident factors associated with case rejection. In a more rigorous analysis than was used in the original study, it examined whether Operation Hardcore was effective in moving cases forward.
Two key findings were identified: (1) Cases prosecuted by Operation Hardcore were less likely to be rejected; i.e., gang-related homicide cases prosecuted by the specialized unit were more likely to advance to the next stage of adjudication. A case prosecuted by Operation Hardcore had a 22 percent chance of rejection, compared with a 51 percent chance if not. (2) The more victims, the less chance the case would be rejected, dropping from 64 percent for one victim, 27 percent for two victims, 7 percent for three victims, and 2 percent for four victims. These findings were observed after taking into account a number of factors specific to the suspect, the victim, and homicide(s).
The authors concluded that Operation Hardcore was an effective prosecutorial strategy. During a period of dynamic change and an increasingly violent gang landscape, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office was able to effectively lessen one of the many obstacles in ensuring justice for victims of gang-related homicides and increasing public safety—prosecutorial charging decisions. In smaller district attorney’s offices where the number of gang cases precludes vertical prosecution, at least one attorney should be assigned as the gang expert, one who is familiar with the history, culture, and rivalries of gangs in his respective jurisdiction. This prosecutor could act not only in concert with police gang intelligence but also as a liaison to attorneys prosecuting challenging gang-related cases.