Gang Experts Trained by Our Grantee Are Changing the Juvenile Justice System from Within
The California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act has been a thorn in the side of every criminal defense attorney representing at-risk youth since 1988, when it became law in California. The Act instituted something called a gang enhancement, which requires that any sentence must be increased by additional one to ten years if it’s proven that a crime has been committed on behalf of a gang.
The stated aim of the Act was to protect public safety, but the ultimate result is draconian, inhumane punishments for Black and Brown youth from poor communities like South and East Los Angeles and Compton. Research shows that 92 percent of gang enhancements are used against communities of color. For the most part, these are children who are abandoned by the child welfare, school, foster and public health systems and, instead of being supported, are handed off to the criminal justice system and shipped off to juvenile halls, county jails and state prisons.
In addition to harsher charges and frightfully longer sentences, the Act ushered in a new profession: forensic gang experts.
These experts—all former law enforcement officers—are invited into courtrooms by the prosecutor’s office to testify that a young person committed the offense in question for the benefit of a criminal street gang. If the jury finds that it was committed for the benefit of a gang, based on that testimony, the court is then required to enhance the sentence, often derailing that young person’s life for good. All based on a single testimony and a single point of view on an extremely complicated and nuanced issue.
The forensic gang workers that we are training are trying to contextualize a youth's gang involvement, explain how it happens, why it happens, and show the limits of it.
Sean Kennedy, executive director, IFGEC
In Pursuit of Fairness: Balancing the Scales of Justice
Sean Kennedy and the law students at the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at the Loyola Law School were determined to show the other side of the story. Kennedy is a former federal public defender and professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. At the Center, Loyola law students defend at-risk youth who are trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline. Many are gang adjacent or gang affiliated.
Kennedy was exasperated seeing his young defendants routinely labeled as entrenched gang members. The communities that they come from, who they are related to, who they know, and even the clothing that they wear has been used as proof of gang membership.
As a solution, Kennedy founded the Independent Forensic Gang Expert College (IFGEC) in 2020 to train independent gang experts who had real life experience with gangs and could testify about the nuances of what it means to be gang involved.
Cal Wellness is proud to be IFGEC’s very first funder and we have supported their visionary work ever since. So far, they have trained two cohorts of independent forensic gang experts and they are planning to train their largest cohort ever this year.
“The police have their opinion, and I respect that,” said Kennedy. “But a forensic gang expert that goes through Loyola's program is usually going to talk about the other side of the issue, which is that most young people who get involved in delinquency are not committing a crime to benefit a street gang. They’re often facing problems in the home that cause them to commit crime. For example, joining a local gang helps them get to school and back home safely. If they’re in a home where a parent has an addiction issue, and there's no food for weeks, the local neighborhood feeds them.”
By having a more nuanced and balanced view on the nature of the alleged crime and the person accused of committing it, the jury and the judge might have more fair assessment of the circumstances, and choose not to prosecute a youth as an adult. Or, they might choose not to enhance their sentence. Or, they might choose to send them to juvenile hall instead of an adult prison—all decisions that could save that young person’s life.
“Just because you have some affiliation with a neighborhood gang doesn't mean you are an entrenched gang member committing crimes for the benefit of a street gang,” explained Kennedy. “The independent forensic gang workers that we are training are trying to contextualize a youth's gang involvement, explain how it happens, why it happens, show the limits of it.”
Young people don't join gangs because they want to be violent. Young people join gangs because they're searching for something, they're missing something, they're running away from something. These are young people from broken homes, young people that are lost, young people that had no choice because they grew up in impoverished communities and this was the environment around them. If we could understand that better and be more human about it, we would approach sentencing differently.
Darlene Luca, Class of 2022 IFGEC graduate
Challenging Racism Against Black and Brown Youth in the Criminal Legal System
In the late 80s and 90s, Black and Brown gang-affiliated youth were labeled as "superpredators” unworthy and incapable of rehabilitation. Every effort was taken to lock them up for as long as possible. Gang enhancements came out of that racist tough-on-crime period, and they remain in effect.
Black and Brown youth continue to be dehumanized within the system and one way that is done is by treating them as adults rather than treating them as the juveniles that they are.
“The police and probation officers refer to a 16- or a 17-year-old as ‘gang entrenched.’ How is anyone that young entrenched in anything? They haven't been on the Earth long enough to be entrenched,” said Kennedy. “The DA says, 'He's almost an adult.’ But anyone who's had teenage kids knows how young 17 really is in terms of maturity, and understanding life and consequences.”
Kennedy is clear eyed. He is defending teenagers who are gang-affiliated. Instead of giving up on them so early in their young lives and seeing prison as their only option, he wants to give them a chance to heal and rehabilitate. For him, the harsh life circumstances that brought these youth into a gang—extreme poverty, family violence, poor education, addiction, mental health problems, foster care—are mitigating factors and a reason to reduce, not increase, their sentences.
Darlene Luca decided to go through the IFGEC program in 2022 because she, too, wanted to challenge the enduring negative stereotype that gang members are irredeemable.
“It was important for me to be a part of the Independent Forensic Gang Expert college. I wanted to bring a different perspective and put humanity back into these individuals who are painted as horrible people,” said Darlene Luca.
“Young people don't join gangs because they want to be violent. Young people join gangs because they're searching for something, they're missing something, they're running away from something. These are young people from broken homes, young people that are lost, young people that had no choice because they grew up in impoverished communities and this was the environment around them. If we could understand that more and be more human about it, we would approach sentencing differently,” she added.
Can you imagine going into a maximum security adult prison as a juvenile, right after you turned 18, the minute they could do it, and being sentenced to 25 years to life, and you haven’t even graduated from high school? To go into that situation and to earn your bachelor's degree, to work a job in the prison system, to stay out of trouble, and to convince a very skeptical parole board to let you out after serving many years. These are really amazing people with incredible grit, faith, and stamina.
Sean Kennedy, executive director, IFGEC
Who Are Loyola Law School-Certified Forensic Gang Experts? What Makes Them Different?
We are honored to support the Independent Forensic Gang Expert College as a grantee in our Community Well-being portfolio. And while this program has many supporters, it's also controversial, which is what happens whenever significant change is introduced into a system that has been on autopilot for decades.
The main reason the College is controversial in some corners of the criminal legal system is because the graduates of the program are formerly incarcerated ex-gang members, many of them juvenile lifers who were pardoned after demonstrating, against insurmountable odds, that they have been rehabilitated. And though they've been trained at one of the best law schools in the country, some judges are resistant.
"Some courts resist us and say, 'Well, they're biased.' And I say, 'Why are they biased? Because they went through that experience personally and understand it? How's that different from the police officer who was involved in the gang unit?' Both of them may have biases, and those are for the jury to decide," said Sean Kennedy.
In the below clip, Kennedy explains that independent forensic gang experts have been welcomed by the defense community, but that there is still resistance.
Most of the graduates are currently working as social workers, reentry workers, and gang interventionists. They are seen as community elders and are deeply respected in their communities and beyond.
"It's humbling to be in the presence of the graduates of this program,” said Kennedy." Can you imagine going into a maximum security adult prison as a juvenile, right after you turned 18, the minute they could do it, and being sentenced to 25 years to life, and you haven’t even graduated from high school? To go into that situation and to earn your bachelor's degree, to work a job in the prison system, to stay out of trouble, and to convince a very skeptical parole board to let you out after serving many years. These are really amazing people with incredible grit, and faith, and stamina.”
Two of those inspiring graduates are Darlene and Robert Luca, who are married. Their love for each other, their children and their community is evident in their every word and gesture.
Darlene is Southern California Regional Program Manager for Impact Justice'sCalifornia Justice Leaders Program. In her role, she hires and trains formerly incarcerated people to be peer navigators for young people coming home. Roberto is program director at Mass Liberation, a reentry service hub in Torrance, Los Angeles, that also supports returning citizens.
They were both gang involved when they were young, were convicted under gang enhancement rules, and they served their sentences. They got educated and today are now helping rebuild their communities.
Darlene was arrested as a teenager and served three years in adult prison. Since then she has been committed to supporting young people by helping them exit gang life, preventing them from entering it in the first place, and supporting them once they returned to society after serving their time. Roberto was deeply gang involved—he was a gang leader—and was serving a life sentence. He spent 28 years in prison and 12 of those in solitary confinement before he transformed his life and “earned back his freedom,” as he says.
"It was a transformational experience for me. I grieved for my victim and it changed me. I was finally able to think about the trajectory of the ripple effects of my crime and the violence that I had committed all those years... I began to change my life. I used the same skillset that I had as a gang leader, but now I used it as a teacher's aide. Now I used it as a student leader. Now I used it as an example. I totally switched. I went from being in solitary confinement to being the captain's clerk in four years,” said Roberto Luca.
Some courts resist us and say, 'Well, they're biased.' And I say, 'Why are they biased? Because they went through that experience personally and understand it? How's that different than the police officer involved in the gang unit?' Both of them may have biases, and those are for the jury to decide.
Sean Kennedy, executive director, IFGEC
Darlene and Roberto Luca are in demand as independent forensic experts. And they work their cases together.
“You get two-for-one,” says Roberto Luca, smiling. “People are lucky when they hire one of us because they get twofers,” concurred Darlene Luca. “They get my perspective as a woman coming into the space of gangs and as a mother. And they get Roberto's perspective as somebody who was deeper in the trenches of the gang life.”
Why did they choose to do this work, which Roberto playfully calls their "side hustle," in addition to their full time jobs? Because it allows them to help at-risk youth as well as change the criminal legal system from within—make it more just and equitable.
Even though they are hired by the defense, they insist that they are independent gang experts.
“We believe in justice. I'm not [the defendant's] friend, I'm not an advocate. I’m an expert witness,” said Roberto Luca, who has been called to testify multiple times in different courtrooms.
“We are gang experts because we bring the unique insight of having that lived experience. But we also bring the education we got though the Independent Forensic Gang Expert College. That's what makes us unique,” said Roberto Luca.
“I think the biggest difference that we make is that we understand the different levels of gang activity within a gang. We’re able to read between the lines, which is very helpful when you're trying to identify how active, for example, a person is in a gang. Is he just an outliner or is he one of the individuals who's at the core of a gang, directing people? There's a huge difference there. For law enforcement, there is no difference. Everybody's on the same level,” he added.
In the below clip, Roberto Luca talks about his first time testifying in court as a gang expert. To this day, talking about it makes both him and Darlene Luca emotional.
“I still believe in the American Dream.”
Their very presence in the system is transforming the system.
The independent forensic gang experts are reframing the way gang members are thought about and talked about in the courtroom.
Some prosecutors are beginning to change their minds. They are starting to see the harms that gang and gun enhancements have wreaked on poor Black and Brown communities. In 2020, San Francisco's District Attorney Chesa Boudin stopped charging gang enhancements, and now the same is happening in Los Angeles.
"We're on the cusp of change. In Los Angeles County, the district attorney has stopped charging gang enhancements. He's being criticized in some quarters for that and we'll see if that maintains. But I believe our legislature in California, up in Sacramento, are talking about reforms,” said Kennedy.
For Darlene and Roberto Luca, their experience as gang experts has surprisingly given them more trust and confidence in the justice system. As teenagers, both were victims of police corruption, but both are now hopeful that change is possible and can be created from within.
“I still believe in the American Dream. We just have a lot more work to do,” said Roberto Luca.
He continued: “Change has to be created from the inside. One of our gang experts, Danny Contreras, does trainings for police officers in his county. Danny is training police officers, new cadets. That gives me a little hope that the system is changing."
Similarly, Darlene is optimistic while remaining pragmatic. "It gives me hope that we have different voices at the table and that our expertise is leveraged in these ways. But, to me, it still feels like a war on Black and Brown people when these [gang and gun] enhancements are in place and voted for.”
We are hoping that the gang enhancements will come to an end. Already, in 2021, Governor Newsom signed into law AB 333, also known as The STEP Forward Act, which limits gang enhancements in some ways. That is a step in the right direction, but still short of getting rid of these racially biased enhancements.
Ultimately, there is a lot to be hopeful for. According to Kennedy, the greatest success of the Independent Forensic Gang Expert College so far has been the gang experts' ability to reach the at-risk youth and try to convince them to give up the gang life.
Kennedy told us that for him and the Loyola Law School, one goal is to win cases and get fair sentences for Black and Brown youth. The other goal is to give them an actual second chance. "I've buried clients who were really good kids, but who ended up dead on the streets," said Kennedy.
The independent forensic gang experts, having been gang members themselves and having left that life for good, are credible and respected messengers who are more likely than anyone to influence a young person to change their life's trajectory. After all, they are already working as gang interventionists and are trained to do that work.
After adjudication, "[the independent forensic gang experts] are talking to the youth and asking, 'Is it time to leave? Is it time to say this worked for a while, but now it's creating bigger problems,'" said Kennedy.
At Cal Wellness, we are truly excited to see what this incredible grantee and their inspiring graduates will be able to do going forward.
In the below clip, Darlene Luca explains what it looks like in practice to be an independent forensic gang expert.