1 GANG MEMBERSHIP AND CRIMINAL PROCESSING: A TEST OF THE "MASTER STATUS" CONCEPT* TERANCE D. ~ ~ RICHARD C. McCORKLE University of Nevada, Las Vegas Using data on 370 criminal defendants processed in an urban court, we examine whether gang membership constitutes a master status that influences both charging and sentencing decisions. We first review various formal efforts to confront the "gang problem" in this jurisdiction, and provide a theoretical foundation for treating gang membership as a master status. After deriving hypotheses from this master status characterization of gang membership, we estimate statistical models for gang and nongang members to determine whether different factors are used in processing and adjudicating each. The results provide some support for the characterization of gang membership as a master status. We discuss alternative explanations for the findings and their implications for public policy on gang prosecution and criminal processing. Officials' reactions to crime and deviance have been approached from a variety of theoretical perspectives, but none have generated more controversy than the interactionist perspective. From this viewpoint, the very definition of deviant is problematic; formal efforts at social control are said to do more harm than good through the processes of public degradation, retrospective interpretations, identity transformation, and the subsequent onset of secondary deviance. Among the various components of the interactionist perspective (see Garfinkel 1956; Goffman 1963; Kitsuse 1962; Lemert 1951; Schur 1971), the notion of a "master status" (Becker 1963) is especially salient for understanding criminal courts' decision making because it suggests that particular social statuses overwhelm and nullify the effects of other offender and offense characteristics in charging and sentencing decisions. Previous researchers have * This study was supported under Award 94-IJ-CX-0053 from the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the U.S. Department of Justice. JUSTICE QUARTERLY, Vol. 14 No. 3, September Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences
2 408 GANG PROCESSING applied this concept to understand societal reactions to a variety of deviant behaviors, but none have clearly developed or empirically tested specific hypotheses about what should happen if particular characteristics operate as a master status in criminal processing. Using data on 370 criminal defendants processed in an urban court, we examine whether gang membership constitutes a master status that influences both prosecution and sentencing decisions. We first review formal efforts to confront the youth gang problem in Las "vegas and provide a theoretical rationale for treating gang membership as a master status. After deriving hypotheses from this master status characterization, we estimate statistical models for gang and nongang members to determine whether different factors are used in processing and adjudicating each type of case. We then discuss the results in terms of alternative explanations and the implications of this research for public policy on gang prosecution. YOUTH GANGS AND THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE RESPONSE IN NEVADA Over the last decade, a growing gang problem has emerged in Nevada and its major city, Las Vegas. The first accounts of youth gang activity in Las Vegas involved highly publicized instances of school and drive-by shootings in the late 1980s. More recently, police data document the migration of gang members from southern California to Las Vegas (Maxson and Klein 1993), and several highprofile cases of Los Angeles gang members committing armed robberies of large casinos have increased public concern about this problem. By 1990 an estimated 6,000 gang members were active in some 60 street gangs in the Las Vegas metropolitan area (Lucherini 1991). Schools in Clark County (which includes Las Vegas) have initiated gang awareness curricula, and several local politicians (including those in a hotly contested campaign for sheriff) have presented gang abatement as their dominant campaign issue. Daily media coverage of gang violence and its innocent victims fuels and reinforces public images of the city as a growing war zone for predatory violence by young gangsters. As in many other jurisdictions (see Curry et al, 1994; Institute of Law and Justice 1994), the official response to the "gang problem" in Las Vegas has been the passage of antigang legislation and the establishment of specialized gang enforcement and prosecution units. Various statutes targeting gang offenders and prohibiting particular activities were introduced and enacted in the late 1980s. These antigang statutes include sentence enhancements for gangrelated crimes and specific provisions regarding drive-by shootings,
3 MIETHE AND McCORKLE 409 the public discharge of firearms, crimes committed in school zones, using minors to commit crime, and the eviction from public housing for using a dwelling to facilitate drug trafficking (Legislative Counsel Bureau 1989). Concerning law enforcement, a specialized 32- person division within the Las Vegas police department was established in 1989 to increase gang intelligence and investigation for successful prosecutions. A separate three-attorney unit was developed in the Clark County District Attorney's Office to prosecute felony cases involving gang members and habitual offenders. The explicit goal of the antigang legislation and the specialized gang units was to increase the certainty and severity of punishment for gang-related crime (Lucherini 1991). From a prosecutor's perspective, antigang statutes provide a fuller array of criminal statutes that could be applied in gang cases and gave prosecutors a way (through the gang enhancement) to double the incarceration time for convicted offenders. Gang enforcement and prosecution units, in contrast, were designed to overcome problems limiting the successful adjudication of gang cases. As noted by several authors (Conly 1993; Curry et al. 1994; Dahman 1983; Klein, Gordon, and Maxson 1987; Institute of Law and Justice 1994; Reiner 1992; Spergel 1990), law enforcement problems in gang cases include the lack of adequate police intelligence on gang membership and structure (to prove gang participation), low victim/witness cooperation (due to intimidation and the desire for "street payback"), and low victim/witness credibility (because victims and witnesses often are also gang members). Gang offenses present additional problems for prosecution because they often span both juvenile and adult systems, require detailed attention that is unrealistic, given most DAs' caseloads, and demand specialized knowledge of using gang experts in courts, proving gang membership, and executing search warrants. Under these conditions, the creation of specialized units and staff to deal with gang offenses is often considered an effective way of overcoming the barriers to successful prosecution (Institute of Law and Justice 1994; Reiner 1992). As a result of media attention to gang-related crime and the creation of specialized organizational subunits in the criminal justice system, the label gang member has developed special meaning in this jurisdiction and others. Because of a stereotype or typification, both officials in the criminal justice system and the public react in particular ways when they are told that an offender is a "gangster." Below we discuss how this stereotypical conception of gang members may operate as a member status, which neutralizes the importance of other offender and offense characteristics in dispositional decisions.
4 410 GANG PROCESSING MASTER STATUS AND CRIME STEREOTYPES Individuals possess a variety of status characteristics that shape their personal identity and influence reactions by others. Some of these characteristics, however, are more prominent than others, and override other traits. Hughes (1945) refers to these dominant characteristics as one's master status. The central feature of a master status is that it overwhelms and neutralizes all of the individual's other status characteristics and becomes the predominant attribute in his or her personal identity. Although the literature on criminal stereotypes has direct relevance to understanding a master status, it is important to recognize the similarities and differences between these two concepts. Both stereotypes and the master status concept are cognitive schemata that observers use to make attributions and dispositional decisions under the constraints of time, resources, and effort (Farrell and Holmes 1991). Under both specifications, a particular cue or the knowledge of a particular attribute (e.g., becoming aware that a person is an ex-convict or a mental patient) places in motion a set of other attributions and expectations. Stereotypes and master statuses, however, differ in how the observer interprets and processes other information. The literature on stereotyping suggests that observers selectively filter additional information and either amplify or diminish the stereotype, depending on whether the additional data are consistent with the original typification (Farrell and Holmes 1991; Hamilton 1979; Howard 1984; Miethe 1988). Alleged transgressions or offenders that fit the image of a "normal crime" (Sudnow 1965) are treated routinely, whereas exceptional cases (those in which some auxiliary attributes are inconsistent) are problematic and require special treatment (Farrell and Holmes 1991). In contrast, a master status is more rigid and more overwhelming in its application. Other, auxiliary traits are associated with the master status, but they hardly change the attributions and expectations that derive from the master trait. In other words, a master status operates as the ultimate stereotype: Attributions and expectations based on it are so firmly entrenched that they guide dispositional decisions even when other information may be more pertinent. The idea of a master status has been used most widely in the sociology of deviance. In this area, researchers have investigated how various status characteristics and labels (e.g., homosexual, drug addict, alcoholic, obese, physically handicapped, mentally ill, ex-convict, criminal) are used to define individuals, recast their social position, limit alternatives and opportunities, modify their personal identity, and alter their subsequent behavior (Becker 1963;
5 MIETHE AND McCORKLE 411 Clinard and Meier 1985; Ericson 1977; Farrell and Swigert 1978; Frable 1993; Goffman 1963; Hiller 1982; Huffme and Clausen 1979; Jenks 1986; Lemert 1961; Movahedi 1978; Scheff 1966; Schur 1971). The master status notion also may explain the findings of differential treatment by race, class, and gender in criminal processing (for reviews, see Hagan and Bumiller 1983; Miethe and Moore 1986; Peterson and Hagan 1984). In fact, Miethe and Moore's (1986) speculation that race may no longer operate (as it did in the past) as a ~caste-like" variable in criminal justice decision making is another way of saying that race has diminished over time as a master status. Wilson's (1978) thesis about the declining significance of race, suggesting that class position has replaced race as the major determinant of African Americans' life chances, is also consistent with the idea that race has become less relevant as a master status. As originaljy suggested by Zatz (1985), there are several related reasons why the label gang member is a typification that seems to clearly fit the notion of a master status. First, this particular label is associated with both social and legal condemnation in this jurisdiction. The national and local media reinforce a strong negative public image of gang members as vile, dangerous, detached, and unpredictable youths, and gang membership is a necessary legal element for conviction under the gang enhancement statute in Nevada. Second, various formal procedures and practices used in processing gang cases highlight and dramatize the differences between alleged gang and nongang offenders. In Las Vegas these practices include special handling of gang cases through a separate police unit, using gang experts for testimony, prosecuting cases through a special gang unit, and special designations in presentence investigation reports that further signify criminal acts by gang members. Each of these practices reinforces the image that gang cases are different and should be treated accordingly. Third, certain auxiliary traits (including offender, offense, and case-processing attributes) are widely perceived to typify gangsters and gang offenses. For example, a common stereotypical image of gang members is that they are young, male, poor, uneducated, and nonwhite, and have extensive prior records and low impulse control (Moore 1993). Local prosecutors often perceive their cases as more difficult to prosecute, largely because of the victim/witness problems previously noted. Under these conditions, the official designation of an offender as a gang member is likely to serve as a master status that substantially alters how a criminal complaint is handled in charging and sentencing decisions.
6 412 GANG PROCESSING HYPOTHESES If the official designation of a criminal defendant as a gang member functions as a master status, two hypothesized relationships should be observed. First, after other offender and offense characteristics are controlled, gang and nongang cases should differ significantly in their likelihood of charge dismissal and imprisonment upon conviction. Second, gang membership should dominate and neutralize other offender and offense attributes in dispositional decisions. For cases involving gang members, the likelihood of charge dismissal or a prison sentence upon conviction should be largely independent of other offender and offense attributes because such characteristics are overshadowed by the powerful image of gangster. As found in more general studies of criminal processing (Miethe and Moore 1986; Peterson and Hagan 1984), however, dispositional decisions in nongang cases should be affected by various other offender and offense characteristics. Does gang membership result in greater leniency or greater harshness? Two outcomes are equally possible. As a result of strong political pressure to "get tough on crime," and because of daily media construction of gangsters as vile predators on "innocent victims" (e.g., tourists, random public victims of drive-by shootings), gang members should be less likely than comparable nongang offenders to have their charges dismissed and more likely to receive a prison sentence. Alternatively, on the basis of the auxiliary images associated with gang cases (e.g., poor witness/victim cooperation and low credibility), gang members should be more likely than nongang members to have their charges dismissed and, upon conviction, less likely to receive a prison sentence. More lenient treatment in sentencing gang members would be expected if prosecutors must concede more in plea negotiations because of real or anticipated problems with victims and witnesses. To assess these hypotheses, we collected and analyzed data from a sample of gang and nongang cases. METHODS Definitions of Gangs and Gang-Related Crime The definition of the concept is an important issue in any study of gangs. Previous studies reveal that there are no universally accepted definitions of a gang, a gang member, or gang-related activities (for a review, see Decker and Kempf-Leonard 1991). Because definitions of gang vary widely across jurisdictions and social groups (e.g., gang members define gangs differently than do police, prosecutors, and/or legislatures), estimates of the prevalence of
7 MIETHE AND McCORKLE 413 gangs and gang activity are extremely problematic (see Curry et al. 1994). Here the designation of a case as gang-related or involving a gang member was made by a special division of the Metropolitan (Las Vegas) Police Department. The Special Enforcement Division (SED) is provided with felony arrest reports for all suspected gang cases, and unit staff members determine whether the case should be forwarded to the Clark County District Attorney's Gang Prosecution Unit. Both police and prosecutors in this jurisdiction define a gang case as one in which a gang member has committed a crime, regardless of the victim's gang status. Gang-related crime is defined as an offense motivated to further the gang as a criminal enterprise; this designation is similar to the definition used by the Chicago Police Department (see Decker and Kempf-Leonard 1991). Criminal offenses committed to promote and maintain the gang are eligible for a doubling of a prison sentence under the Nevada statutes. As in other jurisdictions (Reiner 1992; Spergel 1990; Zatz 1985), the following items are considered in identifying an individual as a gang member: confessions, tattoos, prior arrests for gang offending, monikers, wearing colors, known association with gang members, and field interviews. Once an alleged gang case is submitted to the gang prosecution unit, prosecutors independently assess its status as a gang case and reassign cases not so designated to deputy district attorneys outside the gang unit. Under this system, agreement between the police and the prosecutor is necessary if a case is to qualify as a gang case. Description of the Sample The data for this study derive form random samples of 168 gang and 202 nongang felony cases processed by the Clark County District Attorney's Office in Clark County is located in southern Nevada; its primary city is Las Vegas. This urban county has a population of more than 1 million, and its major industry is tourism. More than 17,000 felony charges were filed by the Clark County District Attorney's Office in A gang member was the perpetrator in about 6 percent of these charges. All cases in the gang sample involved alleged gang members as perpetrators. Prosecutors charged the state's gang enhancement statute in only 11 percent of these cases. Another 43 percent could be considered gang-related in that the victim was a rival gang member; the remaining 46 percent involved nongang members or
8 414 GANG PROCESSING victimless offenses (such as drug use or weapon violations). Because the gang prosecution unit gives particular attention to serious violent felonies, the gang sample consists largely of cases involving weapons offenses (such as discharging a firearm into a structure or out of a motor vehicle), assaults, robberies, and murder and attempted murder. One can follow at least two different strategies for selecting a comparison group of nongang cases. One strategy is to draw a random sample from the population of all nongang cases (both felonies and misdemeanors) in this jurisdiction. Alternatively, offenses similar to those committed by gang members can be identified and a random sample of these cases then can be drawn. Each strategy has its strengths and weaknesses. The first option allows clear comparisons between gang and nongang members on type of offense, criminal history, and the offenders sociodemographic profile. Unfortunately this strategy may cause bias in the estimates of the net effect of gang membership on outcome measures because the heterogeneity of cases varies greatly across samples. 1 The second option does not allow for population estimates for all nongang cases (because only a nonrandom subset of these cases is selected), but random sampling within the matched subset of nongang cases permits statistical comparisons between the two groups. In addition, estimates of the net effect of gang membership on outcome measures are more robust and more appropriate in this second strategy because cases are less heterogeneous across samples. For these reasons, we used matching as our sampling strategy. Because the gang cases involved felony charges in 1993 and because almost all of the defendants were male, the initial stage of matching consisted of identifying nongang cases in the district attorney's files that had the same attributes: male defendants charged with felony offenses in We then conducted preliminary analysis of the most serious charges filed in the gang cases and used this information to select comparable nongang cases. For example, about 20 percent of the gang cases involved a charge for murder or attempted murder, and 23 percent involved assaults or batteries. We then selected similar proportions at random from the pool of nongang cases. This procedure produced 202 nongang cases. 2 1 If we used this strategy in the current study, our models of charge dismissal and imprisonment decisions would involve comparisons of primarily drug offenders and petty thieves in the nongang sample with violent offenders in the gang cases. Even after applying statistical controls, one would be unable to determine whether any observed differences were due to gang membership or to fundamental differences in the type of cases in each group. 2 Multiple charges involving different types of offenses made it difficult to perfectly match the distribution of offenses in the two samples.
9 MIETHE AND McCORKLE 415,as revealed in Table 1, matching by general offense type did not eliminate the substantial differences between gang and nongang cases on offense and offender attributes because these two classes of cases and offenders differ in fundamental ways. The matching procedure, however, dramatically increased the comparability of the two samples (over the alternative sampling from all nongang cases); thus the statistical significance of the net or conditional effects of gang membership on charging and sentencing decisions can be attributed more readily to gang membership than to other, extraneous factors. Table 1. Variables, Coding, and Descriptive Statistics Variables Coding Total Nongang Gang Dependent Variables Charge dismissal Prison sentence 0=No; l=yes 0=No; l=yes ".674* Independent Variables Gang membership 0=No; l=yes Race (Black) 0=Other; * l=black Race (Hispanic) 0=Other; * l=hispanic Age 17 to * Prior arrest record 0 to 5 or more * Severity of arrested offense 0 to t * Severity of convicted offense 0 to * Number of offenses charged 1 to 4 or more * Number of offenses convicted 1 to 4 or more Firearm used in crime 0=No; l=yes " Number of offenders t to 5 or more " Number of witnesses 0 to 5 or more " NOTE: Sample size is 370 for analysis of charge dismissal (202 nongang and 168 gang cases) and 332 for analysis of imprisonment decisions (194 nongang and 138 gang cases). * Significant difference between gang and nongang cases at p <.01. For several reasons, this particular sample and setting are ideal for assessing whether gang membership operates as a master status in dispositional decisions. First, the label gang case is attached early in the investigation phase of criminal processing and is carried over through prosecution and adjudication, maximizing the likelihood that it will influence the handling of the cases. Second, the fact that gang cases are prosecuted by a separate gang unit gives them a special identity in the eyes of the public and court personnel. Third, the term gang-related has special meaning in Nevada: A criminal sanction can be doubled if the offense was intended to further a criminal gang. Convictions under this statute are rare (accounting for fewer than 8 percent of gang cases), but its existence is important because it also signifies that gang cases are distinct from other offenses. Because of these formal designations
10 416 GANG PROCESSING of gang cases and their treatment by specialized units, the current study provides an unique opportunity to assess whether, and to what extent, gang membership operates as a master status in criminal court cases. Measures of Variables In this study the dependent variables are whether the criminal case was dismissed before trial and whether a prison sentence was imposed upon conviction. We considered other decision points and dispositional decisions for analysis but dismissed them for various reasons. For example, it is important to investigate differential arrest practices (e.g., are gang members arrested while nongang members are not?), but police discretion to arrest or not arrest is a low-visibility decision in which systematic data are rarely available and extremely difficult to collect. In contrast, the presence of an indeterminate sentencing structure in Nevada makes sentence duration more symbolic and often less salient than the fundamental decision to either impose or suspend a prison sentence. Our selection of charge dismissals and imprisonment decisions as the only dependent variables can be justified by two observations. First, these measures are the most commonly used outcome variables in previous research on criminal processing (see Kramer and L~mer 1996; Miethe and Moore 1986; Rattner 1996). Second, whether to drop charges and whether to impose a prison sentence upon conviction are the major prosecutorial and judicial decisions that are made in most jurisdictions. The independent variables include gang membership and other offender and offense attributes commonly employed in previous research (Farrell and Holmes 1991; Peterson and Hagan 1984; Zatz 1985). Offender attributes include the defendant's age, race, and prior arrest record. Because so few gang felony charges are filed in this jurisdiction against female defendants (fewer than 5 percent), we restrict our samples to male offenders. Offense characteristics include the severity of the initial charge and the number of offenses charged (in analyses of charging decisions), the severity of the convicted offense and the number of convicted offenses (in analyses of sentencing decisions), whether a firearm was used in the crime, the number of witnesses (in analyses of charging decisions), and whether codefendants were present. 3 Table 1 displays the coding of these independent variables. 3 The coding of most independent variables is self-explanatory or is displayed in Table 1, but the coding scheme for the severity of the initial charge and the convicted charge is based on a 10-point scale used by the State of Nevada Probation and Parole Department. This index of crime seriousness is similar to that used in other states, both in relative ratings of crimes (e.g., rating murders as more serious than
11 MIETHE AND McCORKLE 417 We found numerous differences in the bivariate comparison of gang with nongang cases on dispositional decisions, offense attributes, and offender characteristics. For dispositional decisions, almost 10 percent of the felony cases in both samples combined were dismissed before trial, but rates of dismissal were more than five times higher for gang than for nongang cases (15 percent and 3 percent respectively). A significantly lower proportion of gang members than of nongang members received a prison sentence upon conviction (67 percent and 82 percent respectively). Gang members were charged and convicted of less serious offenses than were nongang members, were charged with more separate counts, were more likely to use a firearm in the crime, and had more codefendants and witnesses to their crime. Gang offenders were also younger than nongang offenders, were more likely to belong to a minority, and had less extensive criminal histories. 4 Analysis We conducted two separate analyses to assess the impact of gang membership on charging and sentencing decisions. First, we estimated logistic regression models to determine the net impact of gang membershi p on each of these decisions after controlling for other offender and offense attributes. Second, we estimated separate logistic models for gang and nongang cases to evaluate whether offense and offender characteristics were considered equally important in each type of case. We conducted formal tests of the interactive models' improvement of fit over a main-effects model to assess whether estimating separate models for gang and nongang cases was the more appropriate specification. RESULTS Charge Dismissal and Incarceration Decisions As displayed in Table 2 (see "Total" columns), logistic regression models show that gang membership significantly altered both individuals' risks of charge dismissal and their likelihood of being imprisoned upon conviction. Consistent with the stereotypic notions of the difficulty in prosecuting gang cases, gang offenders were over six times more likely than nongang offenders to have their robberies, and robberies as more serious than burglaries) and in treating violent crimes as generally more serious than property crimes and drug offenses. 4 According to the 1990 census, Clark County was 9 percent African American, 11 percent Hispanic, 75 percent non-hispanic white, and 5 percent "other" racial groups. African American and Hispanic males accounted for 94 percent of the gang members and 55 percent of the nongang members in our sample of felony cases. Because of the enormous minority overrepresentation in gang cases, the term gang in this jurisdiction is largely synonymous with minority-group membership.
12 Table 2. Odds Ratios from Logistic Regression Models of Charge Dismissal and Imprisonment Decisions Charge Dismissal Prison Sentence Variables Total Nongang Gang Total Nongang Gang Gang Member 6.15"** ** Race (Black) 4.14" Race (Hispanic) 5.30* Age Prior Arrest Record 1.32"* 1.99" "** 1.41"** 1.11 Severity Arrest/ "** 1.29"** 1.39"** Severity Convicted Number of Offenses " Charged/Convicted Firearm Used "* 4.98***.66### Number of Offenders ### Number of Witnesses # Model Chi-Square a df p Model Chi-Square b df 9 8 p <.10 <.01 *o ~o 0 Improvement in fit of chi-square of main effect model over model that includes only the intercept. b Improvement in fit of chi-square of interactive model over main effect model. * Significant main effect atp <.10; **p <.05; ***p <.01. # Significant interaction effect between gang membership and other attribute at p <. 10; ## p <.05; ### p <. 10.
13 MIETHE AND McCORKI~ 419 charges dismissed. Among cases in which a conviction occurred, nongang cases were more than twice as likely as gang cases to result in a prison sentence. We found this greater leniency in punishment of gang members even after controlling for other factors (e.g., younger age, fewer arrests) that might mitigate punitiveness for gang members. In addition to gang membership, other offender and offense attributes influenced charging and sentencing decisions. The likelihood of charge dismissal was significantly (p <.10) greater for members of an ethnic/racial minority and persons with more extensive criminal histories. No other offender or offense attribute substantially altered individuals' risks of charge dismissal. Prison sentences upon conviction were significantly more likely for offenders with prior arrests, those who were convicted of more serious offenses, and those who used weapons in committing the offense. No other offender or offense characteristics were related significantly to the likelihood of a prison sentence. Separate Models for Gang and Nongang Cases If gang membership operates as a master status to nullify the importance of other factors in dispositional decisions, offender and offense attributes should have less impact on dispositional decisions involving gang offenders than on cases involving nongang offenders. The results of estimating these separate models for gang and nongang cases support the notion of gang membership as a master status. As shown in Table 2, different offense and offender attributes influenced dispositional decisions involving gang and nongang cases. Among nongang members, charge dismissal was significantly more likely if the defendant was Hispanic and had a prior criminal record. Among gang members, however, the likelihood of charge dismissal was significantly altered only by the number of offenses charged. Estimation of models with all two-way interactions between gang membership and other attributes revealed a significant overall chi-square, indicating that separate models for gang and nongang cases best represent the observed data. The analysis of sentencing decisions revealed that an interactive model significantly improved the fit over the main effects model, and these differences existed because offender and offense attributes were more important in nongang cases. The severity of the convicted offense was the only variable that significantly altered gang members' likelihood of a prison sentence, whereas four different attributes (prior record, severity of the convicted offense, use of firearm, number of codefendants) significantly influenced the
14 420 GANG PROCESSING risks of a prison sentence for nongang members. Thus, in agreement with the master status characterization, charging and sentencing decisions were largely independent of offense and offender attributes for cases involving gang members, but many of these factors substantially altered dispositional decisions involving nongang members. 5 DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS The results support the characterization of gang membership as a master status in several respects. First, gang membership had a significant net effect on both charging and sentencing decisions. Second, different factors were involved in dispositional decisions involving gang and nongang members. In keeping with the master status characterization, sentencing decisions for gang members were far less likely than for nongang members to be affected by other offender and offense characteristics. Support for the master status image was less pronounced when charge dismissals were examined. Overall, however, the pattern of results is largely consistent with the master status typification of gang membership. To illustrate the value of the master status concept in explaining the observed results, we consider the predictions that two alternative theoretical perspectives would make about the importance of offender and offense characteristics in dispositional decisions in gang cases. From an information-processing perspective on stereotyping (Farrell and Holmes 1991; Miethe 1988), knowledge of gang membership is assumed to prompt the consideration, evaluation, and interpretation of other information that may amplify or negate the salience of the primary cue. This theoretical approach predicts that other offender and offense characteristics would alter dispositional decisions for both gang and nongang cases. From a conflict perspective of criminal processing (Carter and Clelland 1979), more severe punishment is reserved for the less powerful (e.g., gang members) and especially for those who pose the greatest threat to the dominant class (e.g., minority members, persons with prior records). Given that particular offender and offense attributes had at best only a marginal net impact on charging and sentencing decisions among gang members, neither information-processing nor conflict theory can fully explain these observed results. Conflict 5 The finding that the model chi-square is significant (p <.10) for gang cases but not for nongang cases is inconsistent with the master status concept. The overall pattern of the results, however, (based on the significant main effects for gang membership and the greater number of significant coefficients in the models for nongang cases), largely supports the master status hypothesis.
15 MIETHE AND McCORKLE 421 theory, however, explains the direction of the observed results (i.e., the finding that gang members are treated less harshly than nongang members) under the assumption that much gang-related crime involves both victims and offenders of low social standing. From this perspective, these predatory offenses among lower-class members are treated with less attention and less severe punishment because they are not a threat to the ruling class. Nonetheless, the master status conceptualization is the most plausible explanation for the pattern of differential treatment of gang and nongang cases in this study. We did not fully anticipate the finding that gang members are treated more leniently in both charging and sentencing decisions than comparable nongang offenders. In fact, these results are paradoxical in view of the "get tough on gangs" rhetoric, policies, and practices evidenced in this jurisdiction in recent years. We summarize and evaluate several explanations for these counterintuitive findings. On possible explanation for the higher dismissal rate among gang cases may be the increased pressure on police to "clear" highprofile violent offenses, particularly those which constitute a special threat to the wider community. For example, drive-by shootings, which disproportionately involve gang members, have occurred in record numbers in Las Vegas over the last two years 6 and have exposed many citizens to the risk of victimization. Such crimes and the subsequent media accounts terrorize citizens and place additional pressure on police to solve them. Under these conditions, police may arrest and file charges against suspected gang members as a means to pacify public outrage and exert formal control over these defendants, even if charges are later dismissed by prosecutors or judges for lack of legal standing. In fact, Hepburn (1978) observes that arrest serves several purposes other than law enforcement, including teaching suspects to respect the police and detaining and harrassing persons known to be offensive, deviant, or not deferential to authority. Such alternative reasons for arrest also may explain why gang members have higher rates of charge dismissal than nongang members. This "social pressure" hypothesis, however, cannot account for the less severe treatment of gang members in sentencing decisions. Another explanation is that judges and prosecutors consider gang members to be victims of social or economic inequality; lenient treatment thus is provided by primarily white, middle-class officials 6 According to data compiled by the Metropolitan (Las Vegas) Police Department, 11 of the 18 (61 percent) drive-by homicides during 1994 were gang-related. A total of 131 homicides were committed in Clark County in 1994.
16 422 GANG PROCESSING as compensation for past injustices. Peterson and Hagan (1984) found support for this "preferential treatment" model for some black defendants in drug cases. Kleck (1981:801) also suggests that leniency toward blacks in capital trials is the judge's way of paying "compensation for institutional racism." Yet in view of the politicization of crime control in Nevada in recent years (e.g., Nevada has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the nation), it seems unlikely that judges, who are elected officials in this state, would act benevolently toward "gangbangers." Informal interviews with legal officials (including DAs, judges, and public defenders), field observations, and the analysis of written explanations for charge dismissals and sentencing recommendations also do little to support this explanation for lenient treatment, v Still another explanation for the direction of our findings involves the notion of "wholesale versus retail" crime. In a study of homicide in Philadelphia, Zimring, Eigen, and O'Malley (1976) found that certain types of murder received closer attention by prosecutors and more severe penalties by judges. These "retail" homicides were less common than other homicides, involved victims and offenders of unequal social standing (e.g., a low-status offender and high-status victim), and were prosecuted rigorously and sentenced severely (e.g., received the death penalty). In contrast, "wholesale" homicides were more numerous and better fit the image of "normal" crimes (Sundow 1965). These cases involved both victims and suspects of lower socioeconomic standing, and were handled quickly and efficiently in the criminal justice system. As the term implies, "wholesale" crimes are "cheap" and easily bargained away because they involve devalued victims; thus they are treated as less serious. (In the Philadelphia study, for example, the average sentence was two years for "wholesale" murders and the death penalty or life for "retail" murders.) In our study, on several occasions we heard the term westside misdemeanor used in the same sense as wholesale crimes. The west side of Las Vegas is predominantly black and poor, and has the highest level of gang activity and violent crime in the city. Westside misdemeanor is an informal label used by some officials to designate a serious crime that has been downgraded to a minor offense because of its location and the characteristics of the victims and the offender. When applied to the study of gang prosecution, the wholesale/ retail distinction suggests that gang members who commit offenses 7 We have interviewed and conducted surveys about gang prosecution with 13 district attorneys, four judges, and 15 public defenders in Clark County. We have also observed more than 70 criminal hearings (such as preliminary hearings, trials, and sentencing hearings) in the Clark County District Court.
17 MIETHE AND McCORKLE 423 outside their immediate socioeconomic environment (e.g., interracial offenses, predatory victimization of tourists and other strangers rather than fellow gang members) will be treated more severely than gang offenders who prey on their own. Alternatively, prosecutors and judges may ask for less harsh legal treatment, or may be less concerned about the official disposition, in gang cases involving intragroup members (e.g., rival gang members, person of the same race and socioeconomic position) because such cases are viewed as either less threatening or less Serious, or are thought to be resolved more appropriately by nonadjudicative means (such as retaliation or "street" justice. Although comprehensive data on victim attributes are not available in the current study, we offer some additional evidence for this interpretation of lenient treatment. First, felony gang cases involving minority members as both victims and offenders had higher rates of charge dismissal than gang offenses involving other racial combinations. Second, the devalued status of intragang violence is revealed dramatically in the case of a gang member who first murdered a rival gang member and then, one week later, killed a tourist in an attempted robbery. Prosecutors formally dropped charge against the defendant in the murder of the rival gang member (presumably because of problems with witnesses' testimony and cooperation, and provocation by the victim), but a life sentence was obtained for the same defendant in the latter murder. Third, the label westside misdemeanor clearly connotes the lesser value and the low regard given some criminal offenses and some victims. Most of the gang activity in the current study occurred in this "devalued" part of town; this fact gives some weight to this explanation for the observed results. Nonetheless, more systematic data on the victim-offender relationship and the status differences between these parties are necessary for a more rigorous evaluation of this perspective. The most plausible explanation for the preferential treatment of gang members, however, involves the auxiliary images associated with these offenders, which make the prosecution of gang cases more difficult. Under public pressure to get tough on gang cases, and facing the competing fact that these cases are difficult to prosecute because of witness/victim problems, prosecutors are forced to dismiss a higher percentage of these cases and (for those formally charged) to offer greater concessions to entice them to plead guilty. Lacking self-incriminating statements and corroborating evidence, district attorneys may rely on both vertical overcharging (e.g., charging all offenses in the first degree or as completed acts) and horizontal overcharging (e.g., separating a
18 424 GANG PROCESSING criminal episode into separate behavioral incidents or charges) and then may accept major concessions in return for a guilty plea. From a practical perspective, the district attorney can obtain a conviction through such charging practices (when a trial conviction would have been problematic), even though a probationary sentence may not be considered ideal. Several supplemental findings and observations strongly support this explanation for lenient treatment. First, the gap between the severity of the initial charge and the severity of the convicted offense is greater in gang than in nongang cases, as is the gap between the number of initial charges filed and the number of charges resulting in conviction (see Table 1). These findings suggest that prosecutors "give up" more in gang cases to receive a conviction. Second, a slightly higher proportion of gang cases than of nongang cases (53 percent versus 45 percent) were dismissed because of victim/witness problems; this finding suggests that evidentiary problems are more pronounced in gang cases. According to interviews and various informal discussions with 10 prosecutors who have been associated with the DA gang unit in Clark County, victim/witness problems were the major stumbling block in successful gang prosecution. Third, the observation that powerless persons are more likely to be arrested on less compelling evidence (Chambliss 1969; Hepburn 1978; Quinney 1970) also helps to explain why district attorneys would be more willing to give up more in plea negotiations in gang cases. Under these conditions, the greater leniency afforded gang members makes intuitive sense, even though it is contrary to the "get tough" ideology in this jurisdiction. Although the notion of gang membership as a master status is supported in this study, several extralegal factors that may influence dispositional decisions (e.g., marital status, employment, educational attainment) were not available in our data. s Contrary to predictions based on the master status, it is possible that these factors may affect charging and sentencing decisions for both gang and nongang cases. Future research should examine the issue of a master status when a greater number of legal and extralegal factors are included, and should examine a different jurisdiction to more fully assess the generalizability of the observed results. Given the overrepresentation of African-Americans and Hispanics as gang members in Las Vegas and elsewhere (see Klein 1995; Moore 1991), the master status effect of gang membership on s Our analysis was restricted to males: thus gender is another extralegal factor that is not examined here.
19 MIETHE AND McCORKLE 425 sentencing decisions may simply represent the impact of race. Yet although race and gang membership are strongly correlated, supplemental analyses revealed no evidence of race as a master status in the current study. The likelihood of a prison sentence, for example, was increased significantly for all racial groups as the seriousness of the convicted offense increased. A prior arrest record was also a significant predictor of imprisonment for both white and Hispanic offenders, whereas African American gang offenders were less likely than nongang members to receive a prison sentence. If minority membership operates as a master status, we should have found fewer significant differences between minority offenders. Therefore these supplemental findings suggest that gang membership is distinct from race because it influences dispositional decisions in a way more consistent with the master status concept. What are the implications of this research for future studies of criminal processing and public policy? First, our findings are directly relevant to ongoing research on ceremonial justice (see Klockars 1991; Marquart et al. 1993). From this perspective, there is a gap between actual practices and the formal organizational structure and policies. In the present context, the "get tough" political rhetoric on gangs is thwarted by the legal obstacles involved in gang prosecution. Second, the formal labeling of a suspect as a gang member has mixed consequences. This designation may stimulate greater social control efforts by police (e.g., unfounded arrests, harrassment) against known gang members or other individuals whose social profile fits this label. Alternatively, however, and contrary to the intent of denunciation and public degradation ceremonies (Garfin el 1956; Tannenbaum 1938), this label may impede successful prosecution because the stereotypical imagery surrounding these offenders (e.g., dangerous, revenge-seeking, impulsive youths) may further amplify victims' and witnesses' fears of retaliation. Thus, unless criminal justice officials make some changes to improve witnesses' protection and perceived safety, our results suggest that gang membership may remain one of the few master statuses that benefits offenders in charging and sentencing decisions. REFERENCES Becker, H Outsiders. New York: Macmillan. Carter, T. and D. Clelland ~A Neo-Marxist Critique, Formulation, and Test of Juvenile Dispositions as a Function of Social Class." Social Problems 27: Chambliss, W Crime and the Legal Process. New York: McGraw.Hill.
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