Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics
and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies
A Justice Policy Institute Report
By Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis
“The Justice Policy Institute is a public policy
dedicated to ending society’s reliance on incarceration
and promoting effective solutions to social problems.”
The following is an outline showing the page number upon which the
outlined item may be found in the full report. After the outline (below)
are quotations from the report preceded by the page number upon which
each quotation may be found. For citations, please see
the full report.
This report attempts to clarify
some of the persistent misconceptions about gangs and to assess the
successes and failures of approaches that have been employed to respond
(pg. 3) Spending on gang
enforcement has far outpaced spending on prevention programs or on
improved conditions in communities where gang violence takes a heavy
(pg. 3) Lawmakers in the nation’s
capital and across the country risk blindly following in Los Angeles’
troubled footsteps. Washington policy makers have tied gangs to
terrorism and connected their formation and growth to everything from
lax border enforcement to the illicit drug trade. Federal proposals –
such as S. 456, the “Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2007” –
promise more of the kinds of punitive approaches that have failed to
curb the violence in Los Angeles.
Gangs, gang members,
and gang activity
are fewer gang members in the United States today than there were a
decade ago, and there is no evidence that gang activity is growing.
gang membership fell from 850,000 in 1996 to 760,000 in 2004 and that
the proportion of jurisdictions reporting gang problems has dropped
substantially. The myth of a growing gang menace has been fueled by
sensational media coverage and misuse of law enforcement gang
statistics, which gang experts consider unreliable for the purpose of
tracking local crime trends.
is no consistent relationship between law enforcement measures of gang
activity and crime trends.
members account for a relatively small share of crime in most
available evidence indicates that gang members play a relatively small
role in the national crime problem despite their propensity toward
criminal activity. National estimates and local research findings
suggest that gang members may be responsible for fewer than one in 10
homicides; fewer than one in 16 violent offenses; and fewer than one in
20 serious (index) crimes. Gangs themselves play an even smaller role,
since much of the crime committed by gang members is self-directed and
not committed for the gang’s benefit.
do not dominate or drive the drug trade.
Investigations conducted in Los Angeles and nearby cities found that
gang members accounted for one in four drug sale arrests.
Louis researchers describe gang involvement in drug sales as “poorly
organized, episodic, non-monopolistic [and] not a rationale for the
public face of the gang problem is black and brown, but whites make up
the largest group of adolescent gang members. Law enforcement sources
report that over 90 percent of gang members are nonwhite, but youth
survey data shows that whites account for 40 percent of adolescent gang
disparity raises troubling questions about how gang members are
identified by police.
gang members join when they are young and quickly outgrow their gang
affiliation without the help of law enforcement or gang intervention
programs. A substantial minority of youth (7 percent of whites and 12
percent of blacks and Latinos) goes through a gang phase during
adolescence, but most youth quit the gang within the first year.
former gang members cite reasons why they left the gang, they commonly
mention high levels of violence and say that they just grew out of gang
activity; only rarely do they cite fear of arrest or criminal penalties.
youth who join gangs do so between the ages of 12 and 15, but the
involvement of younger children in gangs is not new.
5) Leaving the gang early reduces the risk of negative life outcomes,
but current policies make it more difficult for gang members to quit.
. . .
may gang control policies
make the process of leaving more rather than less difficult by
continuing to target former members after their gang affiliation has
record of law enforcement anti-gang efforts provides little reason for
Findings from investigations of gang enforcement efforts in 17
jurisdictions over the past two decades yield few examples of success
and many examples of failure.
gang units are often formed for the wrong reasons and perceived as
isolated and ineffectual by law enforcement colleagues. A survey of 300
large cities found that the formation of gang units was more closely
associated with the availability of funding and the size of the Latino
population than with the extent of local gang or crime problems.
. . ”almost no one
other than the gang unit officers themselves seemed to believe that gang
unit suppression efforts were effective at reducing the communities’
authors observed that the isolation of gang units from host agencies and
their tendency to form tight-knit subcultures – not entirely unlike
those of gangs – may contribute to a disturbingly high incidence of
corruption and other misconduct.
suppression efforts can increase gang cohesion and police-community
tensions, and they have a poor track record when it comes to reducing
crime and violence.
6) “Balanced” gang control strategies have been plagued by replication
problems and imbalances between law enforcement and community
American and Latino communities bear the cost of failed gang enforcement
initiatives. Young men of color are disproportionately identified as
gang members and targeted for surveillance, arrest, and incarceration,
while white – who make up a significant share of gang members – rarely
show up in accounts of gang enforcement efforts.
Communities of color suffer not only from the imposition of aggressive
police tactics that can resemble martial law, but also from the failure
of such tactics to pacify their neighborhoods.
Positive public safety
report . . . points toward effective actions we can take to reduce youth
is no “magic bullet” to end gang crime, but both the lessons from the
past and results from research on more recent innovations in juvenile
justice policy point toward more effective public safety strategies:
the use of evidenced-based practice to reduce youth crime.
Rather than devoting more resources to gang suppression and law
enforcement . . .
…tactics, researchers recommend targeting funding to support
research-based programs operated by agencies in the health and human
jobs, education, and healthy communities, and lower barriers to the
reintegration into society of former gang members.
. . .
employment and family formation help draw youth away from gangs.
Creating positive opportunities through which gang members can leave
their past behind is the best chance for improving public safety. This
requires both investing resources and reforming policies and practices
that now deny current and former gang members access to these
resources from failed gang enforcement efforts to proven public
Rather than promoting anti-gang rhetoric and programs, policy makers
should expand evidence-based approaches to help former gang members
and all youth acquire the skills and opportunities they need to
contribute to healthy and vibrant communities.
(p. 11) Prologue: A Gang by Any
Mercer Sullivan finds the
definitional ambiguities in gang research a distraction from more vital
The perennial fascination with
gangs is, partly, overly romantic. It can, and sometimes does, cloud
our view of what we should be placing front and center, the problem of
(pg. 13) PART I: Gangs and Antigang
Interventions in Three American Cities
The big American crime story for
more than a decade has been the happy news that crime rates are on the
decline. Notwithstanding recent media reports of an up-tick in violent
crime in certain cities, crime rates are still at a 30-year low.
(pg. 15) Chapter
1 discusses gangs in New York City.
Chapter 2 addresses
gangs in Chicago.
(pg. 25) Chapter
3 reviews the gang situation in Los
PART II: What Research
There is a . . . useful body of
literature that seeks to evaluate the effectiveness of various gang
control strategies and tactics. Unfortunately, public officials rarely
draw on this resource, opting instead to make policy by anecdote.
Gang policy is often made in
moments of perceived crisis, when law enforcement agencies and elected
officials feel intense pressure to “do something” about gangs
immediately – a poor atmosphere for considering questions that will
determine the success or failure of a gang control strategy.
Chapter 4: Down for the
Exploring the Size and Makeup of the Gang Population
Data on the prevalence of
gang problems and gang membership
The National Youth Gang Survey:
The primary source of law
enforcement reports on the prevalence of gang problems is the National
Youth Gang Survey (NYGS).
(pg 34) Law enforcement estimates
of local gang membership can fluctuate from year to year based on
changes in police practices.
The most recent NYGC report
indicates that the United States had roughly 24,000 youth gangs and
760,000 gang members in 2004 (Egley and Ritz 2006). The estimated gang
population is down from roughly 850,000 in 1996, and the proportion of
jurisdictions reporting gang problems has fallen sharply.
The number of jurisdictions
reporting gang problems fell sharply at the end of the 1990s.
One is eight rural law
enforcement agencies (12.3 percent) reported gang problems between 2002
and 2004, while a quarter (24.3 percent) reported problems between 1996
(pg. 35) Youth Surveys:
The second source of information
on the prevalence of gang activity and the characteristics of gang
members is a group of youth surveys conducted over the past 15 years.
Malcolm Klein and Cheryl Maxson
summarize the results of nearly 20 youth surveys conducted in over 30
cities and four countries in Street Gang Patterns and Policies
(2006). Rates of current self-reported gang membership in U.S. surveys
range from a high of more than 20 percent among a sample of high school
students and dropouts in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego (citing
Fagan 1990) to a low of 2 percent for a nationally representative sample
of youth who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth…
NYGC (National Youth Gang Center)
staff estimate that adults make up two-thirds of gang members known to
(pg. 36) Squaring the
data: Law enforcement versus youth surveys
Girls account for a quarter to a
third of adolescent gang members according to youth surveys.
The [survey] data also point
toward very different gender breakdowns. NYGC reports that women and
girls made up just 6 percent of gang members known to law enforcement in
A research team led by Finn-Aage
Esbensen reports an even lower two-to-one ratio of male-to-female gang
participation based on a survey of nearly 6,000 eight-grade public
African Americans and Latinos
were roughly 15 times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be
identified by the police as gang members.
(pg. 37) Two surveys provide a
more comprehensive national snapshot of youth gang involvement by race
and ethnicity. NLSY data show that 6 percent of black males, 5 percent
of Latino males, and 2 percent of white males between the ages of 12 and
16 reported belonging to a gang in the past 12 months;
1 (one) percent of white females
also reported current gang membership.
Whites account for more than 40
percent of adolescent gang members, according to youth survey data.
(pg. 38) The disparities between
youth surveys and law enforcement accounts of gang membership do not
necessarily prove that either source is inaccurate.
There are three likely
explanations. First, youth who self-identify as gang members may be
“fronting”, or involved in groups that call themselves gangs but do not
engage in serious delinquency.
Second, the composition of the
youth gang population may change drastically between the adolescent
years that are captured in youth surveys and the young adult years when
law enforcement contact is more frequent.
Third, the disparity could be a
result of biases in the way gang members are identified or the way data
are collected that cause law enforcement officials to underestimate the
gang involvement of white, female, and rural youth/young adults and
overestimate the gang involvement of nonwhite, male, and urban
White gang members report
committing delinquent acts at the same rate as black and Latino peers.
(pg. 40) There is strong evidence
that females “age out” of gang activity more quickly than males. NYGC
staff reference several studies that show that a majority of female gang
members leave within a year.
(pg. 41) . . . many black youth
have joined and left gangs by the time they reach the eighth grade.
(pg. 43) Do law enforcement
agencies find the type of gang members they look for?
The mental gymnastics required to
square law enforcement gang estimates with youth survey data are
convoluted, forcing us to carefully consider the possibility that the
law enforcement estimates are simply wrong. There are much simpler
explanations for why law enforcement would tend to underestimate white
gang populations and overestimate nonwhite gang populations.
First, suburban, small-town, and
rural law enforcement agencies may be less capable of detecting and
tracking gang activity than urban police agencies. Small-town officers
may not recognize gang activity[.]
Second, the practices employed by
urban law enforcement agencies to identify and track gang members may
contribute to the nonwhite overcount.
NYGC staff cite the second
problem as one reason for the apparent aging of the youth gang
population. Jurisdictions that began tracking gang members at a given
point keep people in their files long after they have ceased “banging,”
creating the false impression that the membership is steadily aging and
Third, there is ample evidence
that police misidentify minority youth as gang members based on their
race and ethnicity, style of dress, and association with gang peers.
Esbensen argues that minority
youth are disproportionately identified as gang members because that is
who law enforcement officers have been trained to see:
In Europe, as in the United
States, Esbensen reports, law enforcement officials consistently
overestimated the role of minority youth and underestimated the role of
majority youth in gang activity.
(pg. 45) Chapter 5: Blood In,
Why Youth Join gangs and How They Leave
During the next 12 months,
hundreds of thousands of adolescent boys and girls will join gangs or
form new ones. That’s the bad news. The good news: nearly all will
tire of the violence or outgrow their gang fascination, and most will do
so in a year or less.
Father Boyle observes that what sets gang members apart from other
youth is their misery.
(pg. 46) Leaving:
It is commonly believed that gang
membership is a one-way street leading inevitably to death or jail.
Nothing could be further from the
Data from national and local
youth surveys indicate that the typical gang member is active for a year
(pg. 47) Why youth
It is surprising that more
attention has not been devoted to the question of why and how youth
leave gangs. The salutary effect of desistance from gang membership is
reason enough to pursue a research and policy agenda that aims to
accelerate turnover among gang members.
The primary source of information
on leaving the gang is a set of interviews conducted by Scott Decker and
Barry Van Winkle in the early 1990s with 99 current and 24 former St.
Louis gang members (1996). Results that are based on such a narrow
sample cannot claim to be authoritative, but they do provide a helpful
point of departure for thinking about desistance from gang activity.
All twenty-one individuals who
answered this question told us, flat out, that their experience with
violence had been the primary motivation for leaving the gang.
Interviews with gang members who
participated in the Denver Youth Survey provide another glimpse of
leaving a gang. Huizinga reports that 30 to 40 per-
(pg. 48) cent of former gang
members identified maturation as their main motive for leaving the gang
(personal communication). These individuals described having “grown
up,” “grown out of it,” taken on “new responsibilities,” or simply
“got[ten] too old” for the gang life. The maturation process was often
linked to having children. Safety concerns accounted for the
second-largest set of responses, and moves to new neighborhoods or out
of the city also played a role in some cases.
The St. Louis and Denver
interviews of former gang members share one critical feature: mention
of motives related to law enforcement or the criminal justice system
(fear of arrest or incarceration, for example) was almost entirely
These findings point to a
mismatch between traditional gang control policies, which seek to deter
gang activity through the use of criminal justice sanctions, and the
reality of gang membership.
(pg. 48) How youth
Current gang members interviewed
by Decker and Van Winkle . . .
Two-thirds of former members (13
out of 19) indicated that they “just quit” the gang, while the
next-largest group said that they had moved to another state (4 of 19).
Just two former gang members reported having been formally “beaten out”
of the gang.
(pg 49) Huizinga reports somewhat
different results from interviews with former gang members in Denver
(personal correspondence). Some interviewees described opting to be
“beat out” of the gang, often for the sake of children whom they “don’t
want to end up like [themselves].” The process of being beat out did
not appear to deter most youth from leaving the gang, since a large
majority of Denver members quit before the age of 18.
The principal barrier to leaving
a gang is not fear of punishment by the gang but the difficulty many
gang members face when they try to make new lives for themselves.
Decker and Lauritsen . . . (1996).
“After all, what incentive is
there to leave the gang when it is the source of their friends and when
past criminal activities committed as gang members cause many groups to
treat them as if they remained in the gang?”
(pg. 49) Consequences
of gang membership
The negative consequences of past
gang involvement persisted well into adulthood for participants in the
Rochester Youth Survey (Thornberry, personal communication). At the age
of 30, former gang members were much more likely to report being
unemployed, receiving welfare, committing crime, or carrying a gun than
peers who had never joined a gang.
Males who spent a year or less in
a gang were no more likely than nonmembers to be unemployed or receiving
welfare by the time they reached 30.
Gang involvement clearly disrupts
the lives of youth during a critical developmental period when they
should be receiving an education, learning life skills, and taking on
adult responsibilities. Thornberry’s findings indicate that much of the
damage might be avoided if policy makers could figure out how to quickly
and successfully move youth out of gangs. Decker concurs that we should
set a high priority on “[getting] them out as quickly as we can”
Decker and Van Winkle conclude
that public safety initiatives should “respond to the crimes of gang
members, especially their violence, not to the group nature of the
affiliations these individuals maintain” (1996).
(pg. 51) Chapter 6:
Public Enemy #1? Gang Crime Myths and
The tendency to equate gangs with
the most spectacular forms of crime has also generated a set of public
myths about the relationship between gangs and crime. These myths hold
of all gang members are hardened criminals.
members spend most of their time planning or committing crimes.
members are responsible for the bulk of violent crime.
largely organize and direct the criminal activity of their
Ethnographic and survey research
have fairly consistently shown that:
seriousness and extent of criminal involvement varies greatly
among gang members.
members who engage in crime nonetheless spend most of their time
in non-criminal pursuits.
members account for a small share of all crime (including
violent crime), even within communities and neighborhoods where
there are gang problems.
of the crime committed by gang members is self-initiated and is
meant to serve personal rather than gang interests.
(pg. 52) What is
Gang-motivated crimes can be
further divided into two categories: self-directed crimes that
are initiated and organized by individuals or small groups of
rank-and-file gang members, and gang-directed crimes commissioned
or orchestrated by gang leaders or the gang as a whole. Finally,
gang-motivated crimes can be understood in terms of instrumental
actions that are intended to advance the material interests of the gang
or its leaders, and expressive actions that show gang pride and
demonstrate that the group is more fearless than its rivals by defending
turf, avenging past injuries, and so on.
(pg. 53) Measuring gang
crime and delinquency
There are three methods for
measuring gang crime and delinquency:
of delinquent activity by youth who identify themselves as gang
of victimization by people who believe that their attacker was a
gang member; and
reports of crimes committed by known or suspected gang members
(typically generated at arrest).
Researchers have found that law
enforcement gang membership and crime statistics are not a reliable
basis for tracking trends or comparing jurisdictions.
(pg. 53) How much crime
and delinquency do gangs and gang members generate?
(pg 54) Gang members are
responsible for a disproportionate share of delinquency, but most
delinquent acts are committed by youth who are not gang members.
(pg. 55) . . . higher rates of
self-reported delinquency preceded gang membership (Thornberry 2001a).
These findings suggest that seriously delinquent youth select
themselves, or are selected by peers, for gang membership.
(pg. 55) One estimate of gang
crime amounts to less than 6 percent of all crime in the United States.
Reliable data on the extent of
gang crime do not exist.
(pg. 57) Most law enforcement
agencies reported zero youth gang homicides between 2002 and 2004.
(pg. 58) Research results in three
gang problem cities that show that gang members were responsible for
less than 10 percent of violent crime.
One study of highly organized
gangs in New York’s Chinatown found that most violence was motivated by
gang rivalries or personal disputes, and that it was initiated by
rank-and-file members rather than the gang leaders.
(pg. 59) National and local law
enforcement officials have long argued that gangs are heavily involved
in drug trafficking and distribution, but the evidence behind the
contention is thin.
. . . researchers Malcolm Klein
and Cheryl Maxson found that law enforcement officials have an
exaggerated perception of gang member involvement in drug distribution.
Maxson replicated these findings
six years later when she used police records to examine 1,563 cocaine
sale incidents and 471 other drug sale incidents in Pasadena and Pomona,
California. Gang members accounted for just over a quarter of cocaine
sale arrests (26.7 percent) and one in nine non-cocaine sale arrests
(11.5 percent). The proportions of cocaine sales attributable to gang
members – 21 percent in Pomona and 30 percent in Pasadena – were
consistent with the last year of the Los Angeles data (25 percent) and
well below law enforcement estimates, which ranged from 30 to 50
(pg. 60) The character of
gang-member-involvement drug sales is poorly understood. Drug selling
is not typically a full-time occupation for gang members.
Instead, drug sales represent an
occasional source of income that allows gang youth to obtain the
consumer goods and services that are readily available to more affluent
Gang members are clearly not the
primary retail distributors of drugs in the country.
Gang members do not even account
for a majority among youth who have sold drugs.
Several researches have described
gang member involvement in drug sales as sporadic and poorly organized.
(pgs. 60-61) Drug profits were not
primarily used to finance gang activities but instead were retained by
individual drug sellers. Even members of Chicago’s Gangster Disciples –
arguably one of the most highly organized street gangs in the United
States – overwhelmingly reported that drug profits went into their own
pockets and not back to the gang.
(pg. 61) The drug economy plays a
significant role in the lives of many gang members, a fact that has been
well documented by Hagedorn (2005) and others. But the drug trade is
not responsible for the existence of gangs or the activities of their
members. And gangs are not responsible for the flow of drugs and drug
dollars into low-income communities.
(pg. 61) All of the available
evidence that gang members play a relatively small role in the crime
problem despite their propensity toward criminal activity. Gang members
appear to be responsible for fewer than one in four drug sales; fewer
than one in 10 homicides; fewer than one in 16 violent offenses; and
fewer than one in 20 index crimes. Gangs themselves play an even
smaller role, since much of the crime committed by gang members is
self-directed and not committed for the gang’s benefit. The question,
then, is why the problem of gang crime is so commonly overstated by law
enforcement and media reports.
There are several possible
explanations for why law enforcement and media reports consistently
overestimate the role of gangs and gang members in crime and violence.
First, gang members often make themselves highly visible, while others
who commit crimes try to keep a lower profile in order to avoid arrest.
Second, law enforcement and media
depictions of gangs fuel gang crime myths by equating all gang activity
with criminal activity and by tarring all gangs and members with the
worst crimes committed by any gang member.
The typical gang is not an army
of killers or even potential killers. It is a group of youth and young
adults who are alienated from mainstream society and caught up in a
mythical world of excitement and danger. The damage that these young
people do to themselves, to each other, and to more than a few
bystanders is very real. But as Klein and many other researchers have
observed, most gang members are more talk than action.
Chapter 7: Getting less for More –
The Failed Legacy of Gang Enforcement
When the existence of a gang
problem has been announced or acknowledged by public officials, the
conversation generally turns to how law enforcement should solve it.
The following are fairly typical policy responses to the emergence of a
Form a specialized gang unit within the police department if one
does not already exist.
Launch a crackdown in high-crime neighborhoods by adding police
patrols, aggressively enforcing public ordinances, and using every
available opportunity to stop and question local residents.
Target alleged gang “leaders,” and “hard-core” gang members for
heightened surveillance and stiff criminal justice sanctions.
Other policy makers may propose
adoption of a fourth option – a “balanced” approach that combines the
gang enforcement tactics described here with provision of services and
supports to gang members and gang-afflicted communities. The choice of
a gang enforcement strategy is frequently based on political and
institutional considerations. Officials seek strategies that let the
public know they are “doing something” about the problem without
requiring fundamental changes in the police department’s operations.
The official response to an
emerging gang problem is rarely based on a solid understanding of gang
issues or a coherent theory of what an intervention should accomplish.
The hysteria that greets the sudden emergence of a gang problem creates
a poor atmosphere for considering the questions that will determine the
success or failure of a gang control strategy: What are its
objectives? Whom will it target? And what effect
will the initiatives have on the targets in order to achieve the
The objectives of a gang control
effort depend on whether the problem is defined as gang violence, gang
crime, or the gangs’ very existence. Law enforcement officials often
take the public position that gangs must be eradicated. In the words of
Captain Ray Peavy, who heads the Los Angeles sheriff’s homicide bureau,
“Everyone says: ‘What are we going to do about the gang problem?’ It’s
the same thing you do about cockroaches or insects; you get someone in
there to do whatever they can do to get rid of those creatures” (Garvey
and McGreevy 2007).
Others take a different
perspective on what gang control efforts can, or should, set out to
accomplish. As a representative of one urban community development
corporation told a researcher, “The problem is not to get kids out of
gangs but the behavior. If crime goes down, if young people are doing
well, that’s successful” (Villaruel, personal communication). Some law
enforcement officers also acknowledge – usually in private – that their
goal in not to eliminate gang membership but to reduce levels of
gang crime and violence (Villaruel, personal
The second important question for
gang control efforts is whom to target. On one hand, an initiative may
elect to target “leaders” or “hard-core” members who are believed to be
the driving force behind gang crime. On the other hand, the initiative
may target “fringe” members or even nonmembers whom policy makers
believe can more easily be enticed or deterred from gang activity.
The most appropriate target
depends on one’s theory about how gangs operate. Some law enforcement
officials subscribe to the view that gangs can be eliminated or at least
neutralized by removing their leadership (“cutting the head of the
snake”). Others argue that gang leadership is fluid, and that gangs –
like the mythical hydra – are capable of growing new heads faster than
law enforcement can decapitate them. Some contend that so-called
“hard-core” members should be targeted because they do (and suffer) the
most damage. But others believe that a focus on newer and more marginal
members will not only save more youth but also limit gangs’ ability to
reproduce themselves over time.
If drive-by shootings and other
spectacular acts of gang violence are committed by younger members…
(pg. 68) . . . at the behest of
leaders, then it is possible – although not certain – that removing the
leaders from the community might reduce violence. If, on the other
hand, drive-bys and other acts of violence are initiated by younger and
more volatile members with poor impulse control and a desire to “prove”
themselves, then removing leaders will do nothing to quell the violence.
The third critical question for
gang control efforts is what effects they are intended to have on the
targets. A gang control initiative may set out to incapacitate
gang members who are deemed too dangerous to remain on the street due to
their role in the gang or their personal involvement in crime and
violence. An initiative may also seek to use “carrots” or “sticks” to
persuade individuals to change behaviors ranging from gang
membership to gun violence. Finally, a gang control initiative may try
to disrupt gang activities by making it impossible for
individuals or the group as a whole to function normally.
Further, the thrust of most gang
enforcement efforts runs counter to what is known about gangs and gang
members, rendering the efforts ineffectual if not counterproductive.
Police officials make much of targeting reputed “leaders” while ignoring
the fact that most gangs do not need leaders to function (not to mention
the risk that removal of leaders will increase violence by destabilizing
the gang and removing constraints on internal conflict). Research on
the dynamics of gang membership indicates that suppression tactics
intended to make youth “think twice” about gang involvement may instead
reinforce gang cohesion, elevation the gang’s importance and reinforcing
an “us versus them” mentality. Finally, the incarceration of gang
members is often considered a measure of success, even though prison
tends to solidify gang involvement and weaken an individual’s capacity
to live a gang- and crime-free life.
Findings from investigations of
gang enforcement efforts in 17 jurisdictions over the past two decades
yield few examples of success, and many examples of failure.
The problems highlighted in the
of correspondence between the problem, typically lethal and/or
serious violence, and a law enforcement response that targets
low-level, nonviolent misbehavior.
on the part of key agency personnel to collaboration or
implementation of the strategy as designed.
the intervention had no effect or a negative effect on crime and
tendency for any reductions in crime or violence to evaporate
quickly, often before the end of the intervention period.
designed evaluations that make it impossible to draw any
conclusions about the effect of an intervention.
replication efforts to achieve results comparable to those of
power and resources imbalances between law enforcement and
community partners that hamper the implementation of “balanced”
gang control initiatives.
(pg. 69) Institutional
responses: The rise of police gang units
(pg. 71) Neighborhood
The purpose of suppression is to
reduce gang-related activity by current gang members, and to reduce the
number of people who choose to participate in gangs, by providing for
swifter, severer, and more certain punishment. The guiding assumption
is that, in the words of Malcolm Klein, “the targets of suppression, the
gang members and potential gang members, will respond ‘rationally’ to
suppression efforts [and] will weigh the consequences of gang activity,
redress the balance between cost and benefit, and withdraw from gang
activity” (Katz and Webb 2003a).
The reality of gang suppression
is more complicated. Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries,
argues that gang membership is not a rational choice but rather a
desperate response to profound misery (2005).
The research literature on gangs
also indicates that suppression efforts can be counterproductive. Such
tactics can increase gang cohesion by reinforcing an “us versus them”
mentality, and by providing external validation of the gang’s
Suppression efforts face other
challenges as well. Suppression campaigns tend to cast a wide net that
catches gang members and nonmembers alike. Stepped-up enforcement of
public ordinances and the use of aggressive stop-and-search tactics can
increase tensions between law enforcement and community members who feel
that police are targeting the wrong people or engaging in racial
profiling. Community members may feel less inclined to cooperate with
police, making the task of law enforcement even more difficult.
(pg. 72) When suppression efforts
are subject to more rigorous evaluation . . . researchers often find
that celebrated drops in crime are attributable to larger trends,
seasonal fluctuations, or chance.
(pg. 77) Gang Injunctions
Civil gang injunctions are legal
tools that are designed to enhance targeted suppression efforts. The
injunctions treat gangs as unincorporated associations whose members can
be held responsible by civil courts for creating a public nuisance and
enjoined from otherwise lawful behaviors.
. . . injunctions apply only to
named (alleged) gang members rather than to all youth who hang out on
the street, skip school, or violate city ordinances.
The restrictions to civil
liberties that accompany a gang injunction are justified by a perceived
need to save communities from a gang-imposed “state of siege.”
Law enforcement and the media
report impressive reductions in crime and fear through the use of gang
injunctions. Maxson and her colleagues observe that these stories “are
often compelling, but are never buttressed with supporting evidence that
meets minimal scientific standards of evaluation.” [(Maxson, Hennigan,
and Sloane 2003)]
(pg. 78) Targeting
“hard-core” gang members
The “targeting” of selected gang
members by the criminal justice system is a second popular response to
The tactics employed to target
gang members can include sentencing enhancements, special prosecution
units, and stepped-up surveillance by law enforcement and corrections
Targeting, like suppression,
faces a number of challenges. The first and foremost is the difficulty
of identifying the right targets.
(pg. 79) The second challenge is
to intervene with targeted gang members in ways that do not exacerbate
the problem over the long run. The most likely outcome of targeting is
the incarceration of gang members in youth detention facilities, jails,
or prisons. And there is evidence that these institutions not only
weaken the capacity of incarcerated individuals to lead law-abiding
lives upon release but also strengthen gang ties.
(pg. 81) A recent literature
survey on the impact of incarcerating youth in detention and other
secure facilities found that first incarceration experiences make youth
more likely to commit new crimes. Research on youth committed to state
facilities in Arkansas found that prior to incarceration was a stronger
predictor of future recidivism than gang membership, carrying a weapon,
or a poor parental relationship (Benda and Tollett 1999).
(pg. 82) Terance Miethe and
Richard McCorkle found that gang members prosecuted by specialized gang
units were no more likely to be convicted or imprisoned than defendants
whose cases were handled by prosecutors in traditional “track” units
(pg. 84) “Balanced”
approaches to gang enforcement
Public officials who recognize
the failure of traditional suppression and targeting efforts to reduce
gang violence have sought to develop more “balanced” models of gang
enforcement. The two best-known models for balanced gang enforcement
are Operation Ceasefire, and initiative launched in Boston to reduce
youth gun violence, and the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Comprehensive Gang Model,
which was developed by researcher Irving Spergel in Chicago.
Both models require law
enforcement and other key institutions to change how they work with one
another, and how they respond to gang problems. Each aims to:
suppression and other enforcement activities with efforts to
provide services, supports, and opportunities to both
gang-involved youth and gang problem communities.
the role of law enforcement by delineating which tactics support
the overall initiative and which should be avoided because they
could be counterproductive.
a broader group of stakeholders – including schools, social
service providers, and grassroots community groups – in the
development of gang policy.
with researchers on the design, implementation, and evaluation
of the initiative.
the focus on reducing gang violence rather than mounting
a fruitless effort to eliminate gangs or gang crime.
The Ceasefire and Spergel models
appear to have achieved notable successes in their pilot phase, but the
results of replication efforts have been much less promising.
Replications of the Ceasefire model in Los Angeles and Indianapolis
produced no evidence that efforts to “retail” a deterrence message –
communicating the message directly to targeted individuals – had changed
the behavior of gang members, casting doubt on a central premise of the
Ceasefire model. Meanwhile, replications of the Spergel model in five
cities produced mixed results, with just two sites reporting reductions
in participants’ violent behavior that approached statistical
(pg. 93) As Decker observes:
Give police money and they are
ready to go tomorrow. But it takes six months to get an after-school
program. Go to agencies that do intervention with active gang members,
and those take six to nine months to roll out. We can get suppression
out on the street tomorrow but other resources take longer to pull
together. (Personal communication)
(pg. 93) The
Comprehensive Gang Model Program
. . . [The] “Spergel model” . . .
is designed to provide both social controls and supports to gang members
and youth at high risk of gang membership.
It requires extensive
collaboration between law enforcement, schools, social service agencies,
and community organizations.
Chapter 8: Real Solutions to Youth Violence –
First, we must address the
personal, family, and community factors that cause young people to
choose gangs over more productive alternatives. The most success we
have in prevention, the fewer people we’ll have to prosecute for
violent activity down the road. (U.S. Attorney General Alberto R.
Although there is no clear
solution for preventing youth from joining gangs and participating in
gang-sanctioned violence, there are evidence-based practices that work
with at-risk and delinquent youth, the same youth who often join gangs.
Whether these programs work with gang members depends more on the
individual youth than on whether he or she belongs to a gang”
. . .
multisystemic therapy (MST) provides intensive services,
counseling, and training to young people, their families, and the larger
network of people engaged in young people’s lives through schools and
the community. MST has been shown to produce positive results for youth
and their families, including improved mental health and substance use
outcomes, reduced recidivism, and improved educational performance.
(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2001).
. . .
the United States surgeon general has only named three
“model” programs for treating violent or seriously delinquent youth-multisystemic
therapy, functional family therapy, and multidimensional treatment
foster care. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2001).
Peter Greenwood, former director
of the RAND Corporation’s Criminal Justice Program and author of
Changing Lives: Delinquency Prevention as Crime-Control Policy, writes
that ‘delays in adopting proven programs will only cause additional
victimization of citizens and unnecessarily compromise the future of
additional youth’ (Greenwood 2006).
. . .
a meta-analysis of juvenile intervention practices found
that these evidence-based programs were more effective when they were
implemented in community settings than when they were used in custodial
settings (Lipsey and Wilson 1998)
(p. 96) Public opinion on the
issue of rehabilitation versus incarceration for youthful offenders is
mixed, but recent polls indicate that people are more willing to pay for
rehabilitation programs than for longer prison sentences when the
programs are proven to reduce crime. (Cohen et al. 2004)
(pg. 97) One of the reasons
criminal justice programs are ineffective is the primary focus of law
enforcement on immediate solutions to threats to public safety rather
than long-term solutions to underlying problems.
. . .
providing education and employment services has been
shown to correlate with lower crimes rates. According to the OJJDP,
‘If, as research has found, educational failure leads to unemployment
(or underemployment), and if educational failure and unemployment are
related to law-violating behavior, then patterns of educational failure
over time and within specific groups may help to explain patterns of
delinquent behavior’ (Snyder and Sickmund 2006).
As the evidence that punitive
responses to youth crime do not effectively increase public safety
mounts, law makers and law enforcement should support implementation of
evidence-based practices to treat young people who are in conflict with
. . .policy
makers must realize that funding for such programs should be routed
through the health and human services system, where they have been
proven to be more effective than in the criminal justice system, and
implement such policies accordingly.
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