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

Chapter 22:
Focusing on the Issue


Criminal and juvenile justice literature indicates there are effective prevention strategies for reducing the likelihood that at-risk youth will engage in serious delinquent and criminal behavior. Research also supports the notion that prevention and intervention programs can reduce the likelihood that those who have committed a serious offense will re-offend. (OJJDP, 1998, no longer on the web as of 4 February 2005)

I think this is the most important part of Into the Abyss. Finding ways to prevent the formation of gangs should be our primary goal. Preventing their formation is less costly, less time consuming, and certainly more effective in the long-term than intervention and suppression efforts. Even Howell (2000), who questions whether we know enough about prevention to be effective, has hope.

Preventing children and adolescents from joining gangs may be the most cost-effective solution, but little is known about how to do this. Providing alternatives for potential or current gang members appears to hold promise, particularly if gang conflicts are mediated at the same time.

An antigang curriculum, especially if combined with afterschool or antibullying programs, may be effective. Because predictors for joining a gang and remaining in a gang span multiple domains - individual problems, family variables, school problems, peer group associations, and community conditions - programs that address multiple components appear to the most effective. (Howell, 2000, p. 54)

Maybe we can't get rid of gangs where they are already entrenched, but the battle isn't over yet. The following model may be instructive as it includes a useful way of looking at the gang situation and incorporates all four methods for reducing gang formation and gang activity (prevention, intervention, suppression, and re-entry socialization).

I use the term "containment" to refer to containing the growth of gangs and the behavior gang members. Most people who join street gangs also leave them. They may leave them by being killed, injured, hospitalized, locked up, or by simply getting married, finding employment, moving away, or by other means. Here's how containment works:

bullet Delay the age at which a youth joins a gang.
Primary prevention and reducing fear are or key importance. Primary prevention targets the entire population in high-crime, high-risk communities. The key component is a one-stop resource center that makes services accessible and visible to members of the community. Services include prenatal and infant care, single-parent support groups, after-school activities, truancy and dropout prevention, and job programs. Primary prevention is particularly meaningful in non-gang communities or neighborhoods.
bullet Shorten the length of time a youth/adult is in a gang.
Implement a variety of secondary prevention and intervention efforts for non-core gang members. Secondary prevention identifies young children (ages 7–14) at high risk and, drawing on the resources of schools, community-based organizations, and faith-based groups, intervenes with appropriate services before early problem behaviors turn into serious delinquency and gang involvement. Secondary prevention is to be stressed in emerging gang communities or neighborhoods.

Intervention focuses on active gang members, close associates, and gang members returning from confinement and provides aggressive outreach and recruitment activity. Support services for gang-involved youth and their families help youth make positive choices.

We should remember that peripheral gang members are easier to extract from their gang than are core members and their leader(s). The use of intervention is found in both emerging- and chronic-gang communities or neighborhoods.
bullet Reduce the frequency and severity of harm done by gangs and their members.
This may require a police policy of zero tolerance and a reliance on effective suppression along with efforts to help integrate gang members back into civil society. The target here is the core gang members including their leader(s).

Suppression focuses on identifying the most dangerous and influential gang members and removing them from the community. Reentry socialization targets serious offenders who are returning to the community after confinement and provides appropriate services and monitoring. Of particular interest are “displaced” gang members who may cause conflict by attempting to reassert their former gang roles.

Both suppression and reentry socialization are emphasized in chronic gang communities or neighborhoods.

By pushing the age of gang joining later and helping terminate membership earlier, we are left to contend with the most active and dedicated gang members. The objective then would be to reduce the amount of harm inflicted by those who remain in the gangs, thus the emphasis on suppression, introducing programs such as the Boston Gun Project (to reduce killings by firearm, the most common form of inflicting death among gang members), and other violence-reduction efforts.

There are still gang-free communities which will grow and new communities which will be born. We can take effective action now to increase the likelihood that those communities remain free, or relatively free, of gangs. Working individually and together, we can reduce the amount of gang activity occurring in our neighborhoods and reduce the forces which cause gangs to form. That is an important message. All hope is not lost.

Getting a Handle on the Local Situation

One thing which has become clear to me over the past three years is that we must learn about the nature of the gangs and gang members which populate our own community or neighborhood before any meaningful action may be taken. Generalizations about gangs in the United States are meaningless as concerns designing ways in which to reduce gang activity found in one's own neighborhood. In this regard, an understanding of one's local gang situation should guide a community's or neighborhood's anti-gang efforts. This prerequisite for effective action is also supported by research conducted by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Community responses to gangs must begin with a thorough assessment of the specific characteristics of the gang themselves, crimes they commit, other problems they present, and localities they effect. (Howell, 2000, p. 53) 

In order to take effective action, however, a neighborhood must acknowledge its gang situation, not deny it. Nor should the residents overreact to the gang situation. "Denial that gang problems exist precludes early intervention efforts. Overreaction in the form of excessive police force and publicizing of gangs may inadvertently serve to increase a gang's cohesion, facilitate its expansion, and lead to more crime." (Howell, 2000, p. 53) 

Acquiring Needed Data

A variety of sources should be tapped to obtain accurate data on one's local gang situation. Police, particularly if they have begun to differentiate between gang- and non-gang-related crimes, can provide valuable information to guide an anti-gang effort. Juvenile officers, probation and parole officers, school officials, youth-serving agencies in the community, local residents, and prosecutors experienced in working with gang members add an important dimension to a community's understanding of its gang situation. And, as Howell (2000) notes, outside expertise may also be needed.

Because gang problems vary from one community to another, police, courts, corrections, and community agencies often need assistance from gang experts in assessing their gang problem(s) and in developing appropriate and measured responses. (Howell, 2000, p. 53.)

What kind of data should be collected? In addition to the number of gang-related (gang-motivated and gang-member crimes) crimes, you may also want data which measures the causes of gang formation. How much child abuse is there in the community? How much teen pregnancy? How many single parents living below the poverty level? How much unemployment among the poor? What are the rates of truancy and dropping out from local schools? How many children are fatherless?

There are other meaningful indicators of an at-risk population. Local social service providers are usually well aware of what those indicators are. Once data on the indicators is collected it is also suggested that the data be collected annually as a measure of how the community is doing in reducing the indicators over time. The data may also be used as a way to measure the effectiveness of efforts to reduce gang activity and youth violence. Reducing the causes of gang formation may also reduce child abuse and teen pregnancy rates and other problems some youth are experiencing.

Cutting Problems Down to Size

The Bureau of Justice Assistance, in their publication Addressing Community Gang Problems: A Model for Problem Solving (1997), suggests that

When communities decide to take action to deal with gang problems, it is common for the individuals involved to feel overwhelmed by the concerns associated with these problems - both the broad social problems and the behaviors causing specific harm. The public, media, and local government agencies can become fixated on an undefined 'gang problem.' A common question is: How does a community or group approach gang problems? (BJA, 1997, pp. 12-13)

Rather than bite off more than one can chew, or more than an entire community can chew, psychologist Karl Weick (1997) suggests we take little bites and go for small wins.

A more constructive approach is to take large problems and break them into smaller, more manageable ones, such as addressing graffiti at a specific location rather than citywide. This approach allows for the development of individualized responses that can be assembled into comprehensive solutions. "A small win is a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance." (BJA, 1997, p. 13)

Small wins have the potential for attracting more attention to the effort to reduce gang activity and youth violence and getting more citizens involved in problem solving. It also reduces resistance to efforts which may be undertaken in the future. As Weick (1997) suggests: 

bulletSmall wins help people learn about a specific problem, their ability and resources to deal with it, and problem solving in general. Small wins are easily understood and rewarding.

bulletOne small win often leads to additional small wins by bringing in new partners with new information and innovative ways of approaching and solving problems. Thus, the possibility of solving more than just the problems at hand increases. Small wins, particularly a series of them, can attract the attention of policymakers and elected officials.

bulletA series of small wins can provide the foundation for a larger win. Small wins bring order into confusing surroundings because they are achievable and provide immediate attainment of precise goals. An accumulation of wins over smaller problems may have an impact on a larger problem.

bulletA small win can reflect a major change in a relatively insignificant problem or a meager change in a significant problem. A small win sometimes completely solves the problem at hand.

bulletProblems are dynamic; they change in response to an ever-changing environment. Simply addressing a problem causes the surrounding conditions to change. Because of these fluctuating conditions, it is difficult to map out a long-range strategy. Planning for small wins allows flexibility in the response to a problem. (BJA, 1997, p. 13)

With this way of looking at larger problems surrounding the formation of gangs and solutions to those problems, let's take a look at various strategies which may be used for reducing gang activity.

Strategies for Reducing the Gang Phenomenon

All solutions are either proactive, reactive, or suppressive. Proactive solutions are focused upon prevention (i.e., keeping children from joining gangs and behaving badly). Reactive solutions involve intervention (helping gang members leave the gang environment). Suppressive solutions emphasize arrest and removal from the community. In an ideal world, after suppression (arrest and conviction) comes treatment in a correctional environment (in the community or in an institution).

According to Spergel et al., (1994), there are five basic strategies for dealing with youth gangs: 

1) Neighborhood mobilization. 

This refers to bringing neighborhood residents together in order to reach a common understanding of the problem (what gang activity is taking place, where, and by whom), identify possible causes for the gang behavior, ways to solve the problem (reduce the gang presence and activity), and ways to implement an action plan to reach that goal.

2) Social intervention, especially youth outreach and work with street gangs. 

This is typically done by trained social workers and/or probation and parole officers.

3) Provision of social and/or economic opportunities such as special school and job programs. 

This may include in-school and extra-curricular programs as well as job training and placement.

4) Gang suppression and incarceration. 

This refers to the arrest and detention of core and incorrigible gang members. In addition, it should be accompanied by treatment programs while incarcerated (i.e., drug counseling, teaching parenting skills, job training, completing elementary and secondary education degrees).

5) Organizational development strategy.

In particular, this refers to having specialized gang units of practitioners in the police department, juvenile and probation services, and in the prosecutor's office.  (Spergel, 1994, p. 7)

Unfortunately, Spergel has omitted treatment following conviction. That is discussed in Into the Abyss in Chapter 25, Part 3, Topic 6.

Intertwined with Spergel's strategies are concerns for preventing the development of the forces which cause gang formation, intervening with youth who are motivated to get out of a gang or stop their decent into a gang, and suppression. We'll return to these three underlying strategies and related concerns later in the book.

The solutions to gang activity that a neighborhood may explore should be related to whether the neighborhood in question is a gang-free-, emerging-, or chronic gang neighborhood. Gang-free neighborhood residents need to be vigilant. Prevention is the most valuable strategy for them to use. 

Gang emergent neighborhoods need to focus on both prevention (to keep more youth from joining the gangs) and intervention (helping marginally involved youths get out of the gang) while chronic gang communities need to focus on all three underlying strategies: prevention, intervention, and suppression (ideally with treatment).

To conserve resources and most effectively deal with the youth gang problem, it is important to target certain communities, organizational contexts, gangs, and gang members or gang-prone youth. Neighborhoods and organizations, particularly schools, experiencing serious gang problems, should be priority targets for suppression and intervention efforts. The most serious gang problem youths in the most violent gangs in the highest gang crime rate areas should be targeted first.

Also, individual youth should be targeted in the following order of priority purposes. First, leadership and core gang youths--to disrupt gang networks, protect the community, and facilitate the reintegration of these youths through community-based or institutional programming into legitimate pursuits.

Second, high-risk gang-prone youth who are often younger or aspiring gang members who give clear indication of beginning participation in criminal gang activities--to prevent further criminal gang involvement through early intervention, preferably community-based services. 

Third, regular and peripheral gang members--to generally address their needs for control and intervention services." (Kane, 1992, page)

Another approach involves matching the underlying strategy (prevention, intervention, suppression, treatment in the correctional environment) with the level of an individual's gang involvement. The following chart provides an example of how this approach works. 

Level of Gang Involvement
and Associated Treatment Approaches

Level of Involvement

Treatment Approach

None Prevention:
in order to keep youths from entering into gangs. It's all about keeping good kids good.
Wannabe Social Intervention:
through an emphasis on early childhood (or as early as possible). Proactive intervention techniques emphasize the dangers and consequences of gang involvement and offer alternatives to gang involvement (if the child is drawn to the gang in order to be accepted, provide a legitimate alternative activity in which the child will feel accepted, and so on for each need the youth thought the gang would fulfill).
Associate Social Intervention and Suppression (Arrest):
through techniques identified above and suppression followed by community-based treatment appropriate for the reasons why the individual joined the gang.
Hard Core Member Suppression (Arrest): 
and possible incarceration in an institution or supervision in the community (probation) or both (which would result in parole).
Without treatment, incarceration is meaningless unless it is meant to be lifelong. Without treatment or assistance in being reintegrated back into the community and into a job, housing, etc., then the ex-convict gang member is likely to contribute to the community's gang problem.

Our Focus of Attention

Prevention efforts, in addition to emphasizing the importance of staying out of gangs, should also emphasize the importance of staying in something that is positive and acceptable. Youths need to be rewarded for doing the right thing. Too often we focus our attention on the youths who are behaving badly and overlook the youths who are behaving well - and they are the majority of our youth. We should focus the majority of our attention and resources upon those who are behaving well. Keeping good kids good. After all, when neglected and overlooked, some of them will likely turn to deviant behavior just to get attention.

There is no one solution for the problems gangs present because typically there is no one cause for their formation. If local residents and their chosen leaders approach gang issues as though they were sculptors working in clay they will add a little of this (i.e., a job training and placement program, an alternative high school equivalency program), take away a little of that (i.e., rely less on incarceration for minor gang/drug offenders and offer a Drug Court program in its place) and, in the end, the neighborhood or community will have a uniquely sculpted and effective way to reduce its unique gang situation.

The goal is to reduce the size of gangs (by keeping fewer youths from joining them and/or join them later, and helping current members leave the gang), their impact on victims and co-victims (i.e., non-gang-member family, friends, teachers), and the frequency and seriousness of gang member criminal activity. These are realistic and achievable goals.

There are two Parts in this chapter. In Part 1 we will discuss the process of identifying if there is a gang in the neighborhood and the steps which may be taken to make this determination. In Part 2 we will look at the risk factors which result in some youths joining a gang and the protective factors which inhibit that process. 


Additional Resources: For more information on prevention, intervention, suppression, and reentry socialization, see Irving Spergel's five-pronged approach to reducing gang activity.

You can learn more about Drug Court - a court-based program which leverages the coercive power of the criminal justice system to achieve abstinence and alter criminal behavior through a combination of judicial supervision, treatment, drug testing, incentives, sanctions, and case management. You can explore a recent report on drug courts and methamphetamines.

You can explore how Canada uses community mobilization to reduce crime. Read the OJJDP's Youth Gang Programs and Strategies for a review of prevention, intervention, and suppression programs and strategies.

© 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.