California Wellness Foundation Funds Innovative Gang Expert College at Center for Juvenile Law & Policy

Sean Kennedy, the Kaplan & Feldman Executive Director of the CJLP

Too often in juvenile court, in order to prove that certain crimes are gang-related, the prosecution calls on “gang experts” who are invariably culled from the ranks of law enforcement. These “experts” then offer the opinion that teens join gangs and commit crimes to increase their own status and power, which in turn enhances the gang’s reputation and terrorizes the community. As a result, the story goes, these teens qualify for gang enhancements to their sentences.

It’s a narrative that perpetuates stereotypes and biases about youth from neighborhoods with significant gang activity—leading to harsher sentences for youth from communities of color. And it’s a narrative that has remained largely uncontested by a panel of expert witnesses who are overwhelmingly former law enforcement officers.

Until now, that is. To challenge law enforcement’s chokehold on how courts interpret gang involvement, the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy has partnered with the California Wellness Foundation to launch the first-ever-of-its-kind Forensic Gang Expert College. Scheduled for spring 2021, this in-depth training program will graduate a cohort of independent forensic gang experts from a wide range of fields—including counselors, social workers, and gang outreach activists—who will be able to assist defense counsel in building rapport with gang-involved youth; in rebutting incorrect police gang-expert testimony; and in mounting a defense to draconian gang enhancements. In the process, independent gang experts will earn the trust of their young clients, making it possible to broach the difficult topic of transitioning from conditions that associate them with gangs to the pursuit of educational and employment opportunities. In this respect, the Independent Forensic Gang Expert College moves beyond the strictly legal goal of defending at-risk youth against gang enhancements and towards a broader, more holistic goal of helping them to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline.