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

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
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

Increasing our Effectiveness

Part 9:
Radiating Specialization and Community-Wide Involvement

A mobilized community is the most promising way to deal with the gang problem. The development of informed, consistent relations and procedures among and within organizations results in greater social control and social support and more effective targeting of the problem. Criminal justice agencies, community-based agencies, and local grassroots organizations must be involved in policy development and program implementation. Involvement of diverse neighborhood groups in gang neighborhoods is essential to a viable approach. Local leadership must be recruited and developed if later racial and class conflicts are to be avoided or minimized in the programs that are launched. (Spergel, et al., 1994, p. 4)


Reducing gang activity is not an easy task. It may be easier in a gang-emergent community than in a chronic gang community, but it is still difficult to achieve. One of the most difficult aspects of reducing gang activity in a given community is coordinating the activities of its various youth-serving agencies and social institutions. Each one is an entity unto itself, often at odds with or distant from the efforts of others.

Agencies are competing for the same dollars with too few staff and, in most cases, an overwhelming number of clients to assist. To ask them to take time away from their work to collaborate and coordinate their services with other agencies and social institutions is sometimes too much to ask. This resistance to cooperation and coordination simply needs to be overcome in order to achieve a genuine and long-lasting reduction in gang activity and youth violence.

In what follows we'll take a closer look at vertical specialization, community-wide involvement, a blueprint for successful collaboration, and conclude with a word of advice.

Radiating Specialization

By radiating specialization I refer to the need to have at least one contact person at home, at school, in the police department, in the prosecutor's office, in court, at juvenile services, and in adult probation and parole who know about the gang situation. Ideally, this radiating circle of people who know about gangs culminates in the creation of a community-wide task force on gangs and youth violence allowing the entire community to focus on youth issues and their solution.

It is a circle of specialists and concerned citizens which radiates out from the home, continues through the social institutions of informal control (i.e., schools, the faith community, the business community, etc.), the social institutions of formal control (i.e., police, courts, corrections) and ends in the community. What follows is a brief description of the role each element in the radiating circle of concern plays and the rationale for each.

bulletAt Home:
Parents should know about gangs, what the telltale signs are of gang involvement, and how to identify whether their child is involved in a gang.

Reasoning: Parents are not exempt from learning and knowing about gangs and about their own children in this regard. Too many parents are either unaware of their child's involvement in a gang (or tendency in that direction) or are in denial about it. There also are parents who know their child is involved but do little to save the child. These parents need to be identified and offered assistance, if they'll take it.

bulletIn our Schools:
Every local school needs to have at least one counselor or other staff member identified as the individual who will work with local police and the community-wide task force regarding gang activity in the school.   

Reasoning:  In this manner one person in the school knows which students are involved in gang activity and how each of the gang members are related to each other and events taking place in or around the school. In addition, police would then have one person in the school to contact who can provide accurate information about the gang situation in the school. The school contact person should also be able to inform school administrators as to needed programs, who to focus them on, and what their content should be.

bulletIn the Police Department:
The local police agency should have one or more officers (or a unit) dedicated to understanding the local gang situation (including its relationship, if any, to other community's gang issues).

Reasoning:  By designating an officer(s) to work with the gang situation the police department creates a invaluable and focused repository of gang-related information.

bulletIn the Prosecutor's Office:
The prosecutor should have at least one assistant prosecutor dedicated to investigating and prosecuting gang-related cases. The gang-designated prosecutor would then develop a working relationship with the gang-dedicated police officer and gang specialist in the school.

Reasoning: This enhances the exchange of information between the prosecutor's office, the police, and the schools. When cases against alleged gang members are brought to court, the prosecutor may be able to better understand the case within the larger context of the community's gang situation. When presenting their cases in court, gang-designated prosecutors may also be able to better inform judges as to a community's gang situation - to help them see the larger picture.

bulletIn the Courtroom - Judges:
The juvenile and criminal courts should each have at least one judge assigned the task of hearing cases against alleged gang members, associates, and wannabes/gonnabees.  

Reasoning: Having gathered considerable intelligence about his or her community's gangs through the process described above, the judge should be able to better understand what the community needs to do to reduce the problems which are causing gangs to form. 

Judicial support for community-based treatment programs and grassroots movements to improve neighborhoods is critical for their development and expansion. Likewise, if at least one judge is hearing all the gang-related cases, he or she should be able to make better informed decisions on sentencing. 

If all gang cases are assigned to the same judge it is less likely that repeat offenders will be overlooked or sentenced inappropriately (if a gang member's attorney takes his client's cases to different judges, no judge knows what the other is doing, so the offender may not be sentenced properly).

bulletIn Juvenile Services:
Many communities have an office of juvenile services. The juvenile officers who work in these offices deal only with juvenile offenders (minors). The offenders may have been brought to them by parents, police, or sent by the courts on juvenile probation and for supervision. At least one officer should be designated as the gang specialist and be given a caseload of suspected or known juvenile gang members.

Reasoning: Having a juvenile officer who specializes in gangs enhances the officer's effectiveness and should benefit the juveniles with whom he or she is working. The officer will develop special knowledge about the gang situation in the community and should be able to clearly identify those people with whom his or her clients should not socialize (other gang members).

The officer should also be able to readily identify if his or her client is wearing a gang identifier or acting in such a way as to suggest continued involvement in gang activity. When coming before the court, the specialized juvenile officer can better inform the judge as to the gang situation among juveniles in the community which should result in even better reasoned dispositions of juvenile cases.

Finally, as a participant in the task force, the juvenile officer can learn much more about the gang situation in conversation with the representatives from the schools and police department.

bulletIn Probation and Parole:
Administrators of adult probation and parole services should identify at least one officer to handle all gang-related cases.  

Reasoning: Probation and parole officers who work with adult offenders serve several functions. They recommend to judges the kind of sentence which may best serve the needs of convicted persons and the community. Their recommendations are typically based upon their pre-sentence investigation of the convicted person's background. If the convicted person is sentenced to probation, the officer are expected to facilitate their rehabilitation. They are also responsible for facilitating the rehabilitation process for convicted persons released from prison and placed on parole.   

In preparing a pre-sentence investigation report, a probation/parole officer who specializes in gang-member-clients learns a great deal about the convicted gang member. By then serving as the gang member's probation or parole officer, the officer is better able to serve the convicted persons needs and those of the community in which he or she is living.  They are also able to make better informed recommendations to the court as concerns possible sentencing alternatives and are invaluable sources of information on a community-wide task force.

bulletIn the Community:
The community should create and support a task force (example) or similar organization for the purpose of identifying the services needed to treat gang members in the community and support existing agencies providing such services. In addition, the task force should keep the entire community appraised of the local gang situation (communicate with the press, sponsor conferences and community forums, and make public presentations - in schools, at meetings of business owners, in faith institutions, etc.).   

Reasoning:  Without the support of the entire community, the effort to curb the influence of gangs will likely fail. A community's effort to reduce the influence of gangs will be enhanced by providing a setting in which the designated gang workers (the school gang specialist, police gang officer(s), gang- specific prosecutor and judge, and specialized juvenile- and probation/parole officers) may meet and share their knowledge and insights.

The other community partners in the task force include the faith and business communities, concerned youth and parents, and any other collective which should be present (i.e., if there's a military base nearby, there should be a representative from the base on the task force). 

The second aspect of this Part of the book is community-wide involvement. Without community-wide involvement the effort to reduce gang activity and youth violence may be weakened considerably.

Community-Wide Involvement 

The success of the Gang Violence Reduction Program in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood has demonstrated the effectiveness of multi-agency coordination and integration among youth services (including street outreach), police, probation, parole, grassroots organizations, and corrections in controlling and redirecting serious and violent gang members. Preliminary positive results ... provide further encouragement that serious and violent youth gang crime can be controlled, if not reduced. (Howell, 2000, pp. 53-54)

Most communities have a multiplicity of youth-serving agencies and a broad compliment of social institutions. When they work together to accomplish an agree-upon goal we have community-wide involvement. When they don't work together, the result is a fragmented, confusing, and wasteful hodge-podge of community services.

Poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, poor health care and nutrition, substance abuse, inadequate education and training, teen pregnancy, and violence are challenges hundreds of thousands of our youngsters and their families face every day. It is no wonder that children bring more than educational needs into the classroom, that women bring more than employment needs into the welfare office, that teens bring more than health concerns into the health clinic, and that families with infants and toddlers bring more than a need for parenting skills into a family support center.

It is an examination of these realities - by administrators, policymakers, teachers, and other frontline practitioners - that has resulted in a new wave of state and local initiatives to provide more comprehensive and integrated services to children and families. These initiatives are based upon the recognition that, from the perspective of children and families, the current system of services is too often fragmented and difficult to access. Families find our systems are contradictory, restricting, and dis-empowering. In short, they simply fail to meet the real needs of children and families. (Bruner, et al., 1992, page, color added for emphasis)

As mentioned in the Introduction above, inter-agency rivalries sometimes undermine multi-agency collaboration. There are, however, promising developments in this arena. What follows are some examples of ways to reduce gang activity and youth violence based upon community-wide involvement. They are examples of how local youth-serving agencies and social institutions may work together to solve a problem.

bulletGang Resistance Is Paramount (G.R.I.P.):
"In an attempt to curb gang membership and discourage future gang involvement, the city of Paramount, CA, initiated the G.R.I.P. program, which combines the resources of families, schools, and local government. The program attempts to discourage future gang membership by teaching children the harmful consequences of this lifestyle and by persuading them to choose positive alternatives.

"The program includes three major components. The first involves neighborhood meetings that provide parents with support, assistance, and resources as they try to prevent their children from joining gangs. These meetings, conducted in both English and Spanish, often use audiovisual materials and focus on educating parents about gang activity, increasing family involvement, supporting sports and recreation programs, and increasing neighborhood unity to combat gang proliferation.

"The second component comprises a 15-week course for fifth grade students and a 10-week course for second grade students. The lessons deal with graffiti, peer pressure, tattoos, the impact of gang activity on family members, drug abuse, and alternative activities and opportunities.

"Finally, a school-based follow-up program is implemented at the ninth grade level to reinforce what children learned in the elementary grades. The program builds self-esteem and also focuses on the consequences of a criminal lifestyle, the benefits of higher education, and future career opportunities. Evaluations of the effectiveness of the program have been very positive.  (Arnette and Walsleben, 1998, page)

bulletChicago's Little Village Gang Violence Reduction Project:
The Little Village Gang Violence Reduction Project was "A successful program which raised school completion rates and 'had a significant effect in reducing violent criminal activity, particularly among youths who were older when the project began.' There was a statistically significant 'reduction in the perceived level of gang violence and gang property crime among residents and groups and organization in Little Village' as compared to the control community (where the program was not offered)." (Spergel and Grossman, 1997)

"The project aimed to reduce serious gang violence at the level of the individual youth gang member and the community area. The model's underlying assumption was that the gang problem, particularly in serious and chronic form, was a response in large part to community social disorganization. The project focused on the integration of strategies of social intervention and suppression within a supportive framework or organizational change and development. It also involved community mobilization at the grassroots level and the provision of increased social and economic opportunities for youth ages 17-24 years." (Spergel, et al., 1998, from an abstract written by the staff of the National Criminal Justice Reference Service)

After three years of operation an evaluation of the Project was undertaken. The strategy of reducing gang violence through social intervention by community youth workers; provision of social opportunities in education, job training, and employment through the development of local contacts and support networks; and targeted suppression of gang violence through [housing] project police and probation team was lowering the rate of gang crime, especially serious gang violence, for individual youth, targeted gangs, and the Little Village area.

bulletThe Comprehensive Community-Wide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression (The Spergel Model):
"The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Comprehensive Community-Wide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression program is designed to implement and test a comprehensive model for reducing youth gang violence. 

"The program utilizes the OJJDP Comprehensive Gang Model, or the Spergel model, as it is often called, to engage communities in a systematic gang assessment, consensus building, and program development process. The model involves delivering the following five core strategies through an integrated and team-oriented problem-solving approach:

"1. Community mobilization, including citizens, youth, community groups, and agencies.

"2. Provision of academic, economic, and social opportunities. Special school training and job programs are especially critical for older gang members who are not in school but may be ready to leave the gang or decrease participation in criminal gang activity for many reasons, including maturation and the need to provide for family.

"3. Social intervention, using street outreach workers to engage gang-involved youth.

"4. Gang suppression, including formal and informal social control procedures of the juvenile and criminal justice systems and community agencies and groups. Community-based agencies and local groups must collaborate with juvenile and criminal justice agencies in the surveillance and sharing of information under conditions that protect the community and the civil liberties of youth.

"5. Organizational change and development, that is, the appropriate organization and integration of the above strategies and potential reallocation of resources among involved agencies." (Howell, 2000, page)

Technical assistance manuals that guide implementation of each of these components are available. (The manuals are available from the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse by calling 1-8006388736 and asking for Technical assistance manuals: National youth gang suppression and intervention program.)

As you can perhaps tell, by the time a neighborhood's gang situation becomes serious, the solutions needed to resolve it become progressive more difficult to implement. It can be done - other communities have been successful in reducing gang activity and youth violence through community-wide comprehensive approaches - but it requires a great deal of work. What follows are some guidelines for creating a successful collaboration between local youth-serving agencies and a community's social institutions.

A Blueprint for Successful Collaboration

A community-wide task force on gangs is a coalition and its power is greatly enhanced when the members of it collaborate in their efforts to reduce gang activity and youth violence. To explore these topics together please review what a community-wide task force on gangs is then explore a blueprint of how it might work collaboratively by exploring those parts of Into the Abyss.

A Word of Advice

Morley and her colleagues (Morley, et al., 2000) offer some sage advise concerning collaboration.

It takes a considerable amount of time for communities to develop viable collaborations. These are complex mechanisms that involve organizations with different institutional climates and levels of autonomy, flexibility, and power; individuals with differing levels of experience and expertise; and diverse cultural contexts that give rise to different ways of defining issues and solutions. 

Organizations need to develop the trust necessary to agree on how to work together and to decide what to do. Once established, collaborative relationships need to be nurtured and maintained over time. Consequently, collaboration is not easy and takes much time and effort. Organizations must work to overcome histories that include turf issues, longstanding isolation, dissension and mistrust among key parties, and real shortages of resources. (Morley, et al., 2000, page)

This concludes our look at social institution-related solutions. What follows is a list of other programs which have been shown to reduce gang activity and youth violence and links to other materials related to gangs. Everything on the list is linked to the Internet so more information can be obtained and so that contact can be made with program administrators.


Additional Resources: The purpose of the National Network for Collaboration is to expand the knowledge base and skill level of Cooperative Extension System Educators, agency and organizational partners, youth, and citizens by establishing a network that creates environments that foster collaboration and leads to citizen problem solving to improve the lives of children, youth and families.

2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.