When young people are accused of gang-related crimes, the specialists who testify almost always come from law enforcement. A new program in California is working to upend that.
At a socially distanced outdoor ceremony in Southern California last June, Danny Contreras wore a suit for the third time in his life.
The first time was in 2000, the day he was sentenced as a teenager to prison. Emerging more than a dozen years later, he wore a suit again a second time as an adult, on the day he got married.
He wore this last suit as one of 10 formerly incarcerated men being honored by a prominent law school for completing his training to serve as a professional “gang expert” in criminal courts.
“What’s O.G. stand for?” Contreras asked the small group gathered for the graduation. “Original Gangster!” one of the attendees called out.
“So now we can flip that, right?” Contreras replied. “We’re going to change the narrative. We’re going to be ‘Opportunity Givers.’”
Congratulating Contreras and his colleagues that day was Sean Kennedy, a former federal public defender who’s now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and the founder of the Independent Forensic Gang Expert College.
Kennedy had been incensed for decades by laws like California’s STEP Act, which in 1988 drastically increased penalties for alleged gang members, both adults and juveniles. His research shows that 92% of people incarcerated for gang enhancements that resulted from the law are people of color, too many deprived of the prospects of reimagined, peaceful and productive lives.
After years pondering this, Kennedy decided to do something about it.
Last year, through the school’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, he launched the gang expert college, believed to be the nation’s first program to train courtroom specialists like Contreras, who had been gang members in their youth.
The college’s first 10 graduates are trained to write case reports, testify in court and, according to a program description, explain to judges and jurors “what drives young men and women to join gangs, thereby countering a narrative that has remained largely uncontested by expert witnesses who are overwhelmingly former law enforcement officers.” Graduates are also trained to ask judges and juries to question more deeply what is and isn’t a “gang-related” crime.
Until now, said Marisa Harris, a supervising attorney at Loyola Law’s Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic, “the only narrative available has been villainizing people of color, young kids, as criminal masterminds — not as lost kids finding an identity, looking for a support system.”
At the June graduation, Kennedy told his students he hoped they would “correct all those sensational tropes about gangs that we have absorbed in this culture.”
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Contreras was like many teens who seek acceptance in youth gangs. He and his friends even started their own when he moved to a different city.
He was 17 years old and living in Paso Robles when he and a friend took part in a fight between “white boys and Mexicans,” as he put it. This wasn’t a gang battle, but an adolescent brawl, he said. The aftermath was fatal: One young man died of stab wounds.
Contreras said he believes prosecutors knew he wasn’t the killer, but gang “conspiracy” laws allowed them to hold him responsible for the slaying. He was charged as an adult with first-degree murder and a gang enhancement.
The San Luis Obispo County district attorney cited graffiti around town, the color of an old backpack, and a piece of religious art he’d gotten from an incarcerated man as evidence to show he was involved in gangs.
None of this proved the fight itself was gang-related. But there was no expert in court to argue otherwise: “That’s what made the charge stick,” Contreras said.
Prosecutors have long relied on anti-youth-violence laws and gang enhancements to argue that young people engage in violence to beef up their status in criminal groups. Defense attorneys say a determination that a crime is “gang-related” can add years to a youth’s sentence, and even make them liable for another young person’s actions.
To bolster this argument, prosecutors hire their own gang experts to testify in court, nearly always from law enforcement backgrounds. Defense attorneys, in contrast, haven’t had their own comparable experts to testify about what gang involvement really means in an individual case, or to speak with authority about whether the crime in question was in fact gang-related.
When the Loyola Law School program was being launched, Harris and her colleagues looked for some standard certification process for expert witnesses across California courts, but found none. When they examined the Los Angeles County Superior Court, which keeps its own list of gang experts qualified to testify, they were even more disturbed.
“Almost all of them were from law enforcement, testifying for the prosecution,” Harris said. “Up until now, there have been very few gang experts who work for the defense.”
And on the rare occasions public defenders do hire experts, she said, they tend to be academics, not people with on-the-street experience, “people who actually lived the life.”
‘We are the experts’
Facing 28 years to life in prison, Contreras said, there was “lots of pressure to take a deal.” He did, pleading to manslaughter plus the gang enhancement. And at age 17, he was sentenced in a central California courtroom to 14 years in adult prison.
“If I had had an expert in my case, it might have been different,” he says now.
Contreras earned an associate degree while in prison, and, after he paroled in June 2011, a bachelor’s in psychology from William Jessup University, a Christian school based in Rocklin, California.
By 2020, he had a successful career overseeing drug treatment programs for Santa Cruz County when he heard about the fledgling six-week program at Loyola Law School. Intrigued and reminded of his own experience as a juvenile, he decided to apply.
“What drew me was I can identify with being young and arrested for murder and gang enhancements,” he said. What’s more, he could keep his job and attend remotely because of the state’s COVID-19 shutdown.
Contreras was the only student from Northern California — the rest were from the Los Angeles region. Most, unlike Contreras, had served term-to-life sentences. One had even been a former cellmate. When the training started, they all held jobs in the field of social work and had extensive experience counseling gang-involved youth.
Each student was paired with an attorney throughout the class. Contreras took part in mock trials, and learned how to put together a specialized CV. He and his fellow students threw out ideas when presented with trial transcripts from actual cases, often surprising seasoned defense lawyers with their creative answers.
“They gave us the tools to be best prepared. We’re not just testifying to debunk unscrupulous beliefs and arguments,” he said. For example, if a youth actually is gang-involved, he and his classmates might ask, “What are the mitigating factors?”
They also learned not to shy away from answering pointed questions about their criminal pasts while testifying. “That’s why we are the experts,” he said. “But we also have education and we’ve been working in the field.”
Harris said eight of the 10 initial students are now working as gang experts, and a second cohort of trainees — all female and non-binary students — is due to graduate soon. After that, Harris said, she and Kennedy may take time off from teaching to focus on educating public defenders. They may also pursue litigation to make expert lists like the one in L.A. County more diverse and inclusive.
As far as Harris knows, this is the only program like it in the country. “It’s new, it’s a baby project,” she said. “But we’re getting the word out.”
Gary Thelander, a former prosecutor from Santa Cruz County, said the courts’ use of gang experts from law enforcement backgrounds is a clear conflict of interest and should change. “You have an active officer or even the investigating officer saying another officer’s conclusion is correct. Of course he’s not going to contradict him.”
But Thelander — a criminal defense attorney who’s practiced in 17 California counties — also cautions that if Loyola Law’s newly minted experts only offer services to defense attorneys, judges might not view them as impartial and could disqualify them.
“It would be better for them to be able to tell a judge, ‘Yes, I’ve offered my services to the DA, too.’ It would give them even more credibility.”
Since graduating, Contreras has been hired to give presentations to the Los Angeles and Yolo county public defenders’ offices, and he was recently hired as a gang expert for a Sacramento County case.
But for him, the work is about more than just getting hired to testify. He and his fellow graduates have started a website that describes their services, efforts that extend beyond the courtroom. They also give training and support to offenders in juvenile halls and prison to help them succeed in society when they’re released.
“We’re here to help people out,” he said. “And also to make sure DAs adhere to real justice instead of just trying to win a case.”