Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News


Gang Wars:  The Failure of Enforcement Tactics
and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies

A Justice Policy Institute Report
July 2007
By Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis

“The Justice Policy Institute is a public policy institute
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.


Executive Summary (pg. 3)

Gangs, gang members, and gang activity (pg 4)
Gang enforcement (pg. 5)
Positive public safety strategies (pg. 6)

Prologue: A Gang by Any Other Name p. 11)

PART I: Gangs and Antigang Interventions in Three American Cities (pg. 13)

PART II: What Research Tells Us (pg. 31)

Chapter 1 discusses gangs in New York City. (pg. 15)
Chapter 2
addresses gangs in Chicago. (pg. 21)
Chapter 3
reviews the gang situation in Los Angeles. (pg. 25)

PART II: What Research Tells Us (pg. 31)

Chapter 4: Down for the Count – Exploring the Size and Makeup of the Gang Population (pg. 33)

Data on the prevalence of gang problems and gang membership (pg. 33)
Squaring the data:  Law enforcement versus youth surveys (pg. 36)

Chapter 5: Blood In, Blood Out? Why Youth Join gangs and How They Leave (pg. 45)

Leaving (pg. 46)
Why youth quit gangs
(pg. 47)
How youth quit gangs (pg. 48)
Consequences of gang membership
(pg. 49)

Chapter 6: Public Enemy #1? Gang Crime Myths and Realities (pg. 51)

What is gang crime? (pg. 52)
Measuring gang crime and delinquency (pg. 53)
How much crime and delinquency do gangs and gang members generate? (pg. 53)

Chapter 7: Getting less for More – The Failed Legacy of Gang Enforcement (pg. 67)

Institutional responses: The rise of police gang units (pg. 69)
Neighborhood gang suppression (pg. 71)
Gang Injunctions
(pg. 77)
Targeting “hard-core” gang members (pg. 78)
“Balanced” approaches to gang enforcement (pg. 84)
The Comprehensive Gang Model Program
(pg. 93)

Chapter 8: Real Solutions to Youth Violence – Evidence-based Practices (p. 95)



(pg. 3) Executive Summary

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 to gangs.

(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 toll.

(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.

(pg. 4) Gangs, gang members, and gang activity

1)   There 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.

…youth 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.

2)   There is no consistent relationship between law enforcement measures of gang activity and crime trends.

3)   Gang members account for a relatively small share of crime in most jurisdictions.

But the 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.

4)   Gangs 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.

St. Louis researchers describe gang involvement in drug sales as “poorly organized, episodic, non-monopolistic [and] not a rationale for the gang’s existence.”

5)   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 members.

The disparity raises troubling questions about how gang members are identified by police.

6)   Most 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.

When 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.

7)   Most youth who join gangs do so between the ages of 12 and 15, but the involvement of younger children in gangs is not new.

8)   (pg. 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 ended.

(pg. 5) Gang enforcement

1)   The record of law enforcement anti-gang efforts provides little reason for optimism.

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.

2)   Police 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’ gang problems.”

The 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.

3)   Heavy-handed 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.

4)   (pg. 6) “Balanced” gang control strategies have been plagued by replication problems and imbalances between law enforcement and community stakeholders.

5)     African 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.

(pg. 6) Positive public safety strategies

This report . . . points toward effective actions we can take to reduce youth violence.

There 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:

a)   Expand the use of evidenced-based practice to reduce youth crime.

Rather than devoting more resources to gang suppression and law enforcement . . .

(pg 7) …tactics, researchers recommend targeting funding to support research-based programs operated by agencies in the health and human services sector.

b)   Promote 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 opportunities.

c)   Redirect resources from failed gang enforcement efforts to proven public safety strategies.

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 Other Name

Mercer Sullivan finds the definitional ambiguities in gang research a distraction from more vital inquiries.

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 youth violence.


(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.

(pg. 21) Chapter 2 addresses gangs in Chicago.

(pg. 25) Chapter 3 reviews the gang situation in Los Angeles.


(pg. 31) PART II: What Research Tells Us

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.

(pg. 33) Chapter 4: Down for the Count –
Exploring the Size and Makeup of the Gang Population

Data on the prevalence of gang problems and gang membership

(pg .33) 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 and 1998.

(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 law enforcement.

(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 2000.

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 school students.

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 youth/young adults.

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 growing.

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, Blood Out?

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.

(pg. 46) 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 truth.

Data from national and local youth surveys indicate that the typical gang member is active for a year or less.

(pg. 47) Why youth quit gangs:

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 absent.

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 quit gangs:

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” (personal communication).

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 Realities

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 that:

·     Most of all gang members are hardened criminals.

·     Gang members spend most of their time planning or committing crimes.

·     Gang members are responsible for the bulk of violent crime.

·     Gangs largely organize and direct the criminal activity of their members.

Ethnographic and survey research have fairly consistently shown that:

·     The seriousness and extent of criminal involvement varies greatly among gang members.

·     Gang members who engage in crime nonetheless spend most of their time in non-criminal pursuits.

·     Gang members account for a small share of all crime (including violent crime), even within communities and neighborhoods where there are gang problems.

·     Much 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 crime?

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:

·     Self-reports of delinquent activity by youth who identify themselves as gang members.

·     Self-reports of victimization by people who believe that their attacker was a gang member; and

·     Police 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?

Juvenile Delinquency

(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.

Drug distribution

(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 1995).

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 percent.\

(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 teens.

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.

Perception and Reality

(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.

(pg. 67) 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 gang problem:

1.     Form a specialized gang unit within the police department if one does not already exist.

2.     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.

3.     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 objectives?

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 communication).

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 research include:

·     Lack of correspondence between the problem, typically lethal and/or serious violence, and a law enforcement response that targets low-level, nonviolent misbehavior.

·     Resistance on the part of key agency personnel to collaboration or implementation of the strategy as designed.

·     Evidence that the intervention had no effect or a negative effect on crime and violence.

·     A tendency for any reductions in crime or violence to evaporate quickly, often before the end of the intervention period.

(pg. 69)

·     Poorly designed evaluations that make it impossible to draw any conclusions about the effect of an intervention.

·     Failure of replication efforts to achieve results comparable to those of pilot programs.

·     Severe 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 gang suppression

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 importance:

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 gang problems.

The tactics employed to target gang members can include sentencing enhancements, special prosecution units, and stepped-up surveillance by law enforcement and corrections officials.

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 (2002).

(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:

·     “Balance” suppression and other enforcement activities with efforts to provide services, supports, and opportunities to both gang-involved youth and gang problem communities.

·     Specify the role of law enforcement by delineating which tactics support the overall initiative and which should be avoided because they could be counterproductive.

·     Engage a broader group of stakeholders – including schools, social service providers, and grassroots community groups – in the development of gang policy.

·     Collaborate with researchers on the design, implementation, and evaluation of the initiative.

·     Keep 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 significance.

(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.

(pg. 95) Chapter 8: Real Solutions to Youth Violence – Evidence-based Practices

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. Gonzales, 2006)

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 the law.

. . .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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