Data from 370 criminal defendants who were processed in an urban court in Clark County (Nev.) in 1993 were used to determine whether gang membership represents a master status that influenced both charging and sentencing decisions.
Clark County included the city of Las Vegas. The research reviewed formal efforts to confront the gang problem in this jurisdiction and developed a theoretical basis for considering gang membership as a master status. The research next derived hypotheses from this master-status characterization of gang membership and estimated statistical models to determine whether different factors were used in processing and adjudicating gang and nongang members. Results provided some support for the characterization of gang membership as a master status. Gang membership had a significant net effect on both charging and sentencing decisions. In addition, 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. A paradoxical finding was that gang members were treated more leniently than comparable nongang members in both charging and sentencing decisions. Several explanations are possible. Findings suggested that the legal obstacles involved in gang prosecution thwart the political rhetorical calling for tough action against gangs and that the formal labeling of a suspect as a gang member has mixed consequences. Tables, footnotes, and 51 references (Author abstract modified)