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

Topic 4:
Alternative Sentencing as a Solution

In most cases, if a juvenile delinquent or criminal offender is given an alternative sentence it is to some form of treatment or punishment in the community rather than incarceration. There are a few exceptions, one of which is the relatively new "blended sentence." In a blended sentence, a juvenile offender who has committed a serious crime will receive a sentence which combines both a juvenile sentence and an adult sentence.

Following the lead of Minnesota, some other states are adopting what is referred to as a blended sentence for certain juvenile offenders - usually those who have committed violent, but not extreme or murderous, crimes. Such sentences combine both a juvenile sentence and an adult one.

Normally, youths convicted of such crimes are tried as adults, spend time in an adult prison and emerge with adult criminal records. But in Minnesota, if they comply with the terms of the juvenile sentence - which includes longer and more intensive supervision than a typical juvenile sanction - they will eventually be released without the stain of an adult criminal record. (National Center for Policy Analysis, no date, page, off the Internet as of April, 2010.)

Another exception involves a sentence which begins with a 120 day period of confinement in a state prison during which the offender undergoes a rigorous substance abuse treatment program. The offender is then placed on parole, returned to the community, is required to participate in a community-based follow-up program, and finishes his or her sentence on parole. 

The kinds of alternative sentences I want to focus on, however, do not include a period of confinement - they are sentences to community-based treatment. These alternative sentences have been a focus of debate for the past two decades. The only way to reduce prison overcrowding (other than having everyone behave well and be law abiding) is to build more prisons or legalize behaviors which are currently illegal. Building more prisons is too expensive and legalization (of drugs, for example), if it ever comes about, may take decades. Alternative sentencing is a good thing in this regard. It relieves the pressure on prisons and reduces overcrowding. On the other hand, some view alternative sentences as being "soft on crime" and are a bad thing ... and so goes the debate. 

The fact is, alternative sentencing makes more sense than incarceration for the public in general and for certain offenders in particular. Alternative sentences to community-based treatment are less expensive than incarceration, less likely to produce recidivism (reoffending), keep offenders employed (if they had a job up to the time they were sentenced), allow offenders to maintain contact with family members (hoping they are a good influence, as they sometimes are), and avoid all the negative consequences of incarceration (i.e., abuse, lack of treatment, loss of employment and family and discrimination upon release).

It is obvious that putting people in jail is not solving the problem. In fact, many argue that jail just makes it worse, especially for young people and women with dependent children. Young people become hardened and learn bad habits from fellow inmates. (The Drug Policy Education Group, 2001, page)

If there is any promise of having a positive impact on a gang offender as a result of his or her appearance in court, it is the imposition of an alternative sentence. 

Promising Interventions as Alternatives to Incarceration is a compendium of successful alternative sentences/programs. It is a valuable tool for juvenile justice professionals seeking appropriate prevention and treatment programs in order to deter future delinquency.

In the 1970's, the message issued by the research community concerning the use of prevention and treatment programs for juveniles was that "nothing works." This unfortunate and, as it turned out, erroneous conclusion, together with increasing serious juvenile delinquency, fueled confinement of larger numbers of juveniles throughout the 1980's. Juveniles were increasingly turned over to the criminal courts. These trends continue to this day. 

Now we find that treatment programs for juveniles do work - and were working all the while. This report, the initial publication of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's What Works series, describes a variety of successful prevention and treatment programs in the juvenile justice system. (Montgomery, et al., 1994, page)

Mark S. Umbriet, founding Director of the Center for Restorative, is responsible for the development of restorative justice programs for juveniles in the United States. You can learn more about these programs that put victims and their offenders together in a mediated process that typically reduces the negative impact of victimization and maximizes the impact of justice system impositions on offenders. You can also learn more about the restorative justice.

Montgomery, et al. (1994) identified most of the following types of treatment or programs to which an adjudicated (juvenile) or convicted (adult) offender may be sentenced. Some or all of them may be available in your community and may be offered through youth-serving- or social service agencies. I've supplied a brief description of what each type of treatment or program may involve.

bulletAcademic Education - Many offenders are school dropouts (referred to as "school leavers" in England). These programs assist offenders as they complete their A.B.E. (Adult Basic Education - the equivalent of a primary school education) or GED (the equivalent of a high school education). A better educated person is more likely to be able to compete for good jobs and stay out of trouble. You can visit the official site of the GED testing service.

bulletBehavior Management - Using a variety of therapeutic approaches, the offender's behavior is modified. Examples include learning new coping strategies for dealing with frustration, anger, and conflict.

bulletCommunity Service - In the North Carolina courts this alternative sentence is defined as "work performed by an offender for a non-profit or governmental agency and without monetary compensation. It is a constructive, valuable sanction available for use by a sentencing judge, district attorney, probation officer and the Parole Commission that allows the offender to repay his or her community by providing much needed services. The Community Service program makes it possible for justice to be served by enabling convicted offenders to work in the community to 'pay their debt,' rather then being imprisoned." (Community Service Work Program, North Carolina Division of Victim and Justice Services, page, no longer on the Internet as of February 2005))

bulletControl / Monitoring - By exerting controls over offenders' behavior it is hoped they will attend needed treatment and not reoffend. Some offenders are monitored through telephone contact or personal visits while others are monitored electronically. 

By strapping a transmitter around an offender's ankle, probation officers can keep track of where he or she is. Typically confined to their homes, if offenders leave home without permission (to go to school, hospital, shopping, or to work) a signal is transmitted via telephone line to the monitor and a police car is dispatched to apprehend the offender.

bulletCrisis Intervention - Sometimes people behave in an illegal manner in response to a crisis in their life. It's not that they are criminals, it's more a matter of a given situation and a lack of proper guidance on how to manage it and themselves. A crisis intervener assists those in crisis and teaches them how to better manage emergencies in their lives.

bulletDiversion and Diversion Programs - "School-based probation is a supervision model in which the juvenile probation officer works directly in the school rather than the traditional courthouse environment. This model allows the probation officer to contact clients more frequently, observe client interactions with peers and behavior in a social setting, and actively enforce conditions of probation such as school attendance." (Kurlychek, et al., 1999 , page)

bulletEducation / Employment - Many offenders, including gang members, violate the law in response to having little education and little chance of being employed. Through education and job training/placement the offender is given another chance.

bulletFoster Care - There are some young offenders who need to be removed from their biological family. Each year scores of children are returned to highly undesirable family settings for lack of sufficient alternative placements. Foster care holds forth great promise, if only enough foster care families can be found. You can learn more about foster parenting in your state.

bulletIndividual / Family / Group Counseling - Depending upon the needs of the offender, counseling is offered. Suffering from childhood abuse and other traumas, some youth need both individual and family counseling. Group counseling is used in order to allow clients to see that their problems are shared by others and that, together, there is much that can be learned in order to overcome life's challenges.

Child abuse is a nation-wide problem. "Research has shown that 95% of prisoners who committed violent acts and 70% of all prisoners were abused or neglected as children."
(Kids Count, 1997, page) Sentencing child abusers to community-based treatment makes more sense in terms of possible behavior modification than does sending them to prison where they will not receive treatment.

bulletIntensive Probation - Rather than only calling or visiting with a probation officer once a month or once a week, an offender placed on intensive probation is likely to be visited by the probation officer several times a week - at home, in the work place, and in the probation officer's office. Counseling, drug treatment, and other means of altering the offender's behavior may all be applied. You can learn more about intensive probation at the site of the Arizona Judicial Branch. 

bulletMediation - Rather than penalize or punish the offender, mediation involves a meeting of the offender with his or her victim, monitored by a representative of the court, which results in compensating the victim for the harm done. Some first-time offenders, forced to face their victims in this manner, do not reoffend or reoffend less often.

"It is imperative that all juvenile offenders, regardless of the seriousness of their offenses, leave the system understanding that actions have consequences and that they are responsible for their own actions. No single program can achieve this result for every offender, but mediation and restitution programs are two ways to encourage offenders to take personal responsibility for the harm inflicted by their acts." (Kurlychek, et al., 1999 , page

Crime is personalized as offenders learn the human consequences of their actions, and victims (who are largely ignored by the justice system) have the opportunity to speak their minds and their feelings to the one who most ought to hear them, contributing to the healing process of the victim.

Victims get answers to the often haunting questions that only the offender can answer. The most commonly asked questions are, "Why did you do this to me? Was this my fault? Could I have prevented this? Were you stalking or watching me?" With their questions answered, victims commonly report a new feeling of peace of mind.

Offenders take meaningful responsibility for their actions by mediating a restitution agreement with the victim, to restore the victims' losses, in whatever ways that may be possible. Restitution may be monetary or symbolic; it may consist of work for the victim, community service or anything else that creates a sense of justice between the victim and the offender. (Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program, no date, site)

bulletMentoring - Sometimes what an offender needs is personal attention - someone who will listen and provide guidance. The mentoring movement in the United States is struggling. While we know mentoring is a valuable alternative sentence, it has been difficult to find as many mentors as there are offenders who want and need them. It's as dire as is the foster parent situation.

You can visit the National Mentoring Partnership. "The Mentoring Center is recognized nationally as a leader in the field of mentoring.  We promote, develop, and implement the concept of mentoring as a vehicle to transform lives and effectively address the needs of youth of all backgrounds." (The Mentoring Center, page)

The Search Institute offers informatio
n on mentoring programs
. The Juvenile Mentoring Program (JUMP) is modeled after the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of mentoring program.

bulletMilieu Management - By altering the offender's surroundings behavioral change may take place. At the Burrell Center, in Springfield, MO., milieu management involves teaching youth skills to help them substitute alcohol and drug use for appropriate behavior. The program uses high impact wilderness activities.

bulletOutdoor Activity - Offenders are offered experiences which teach life skills (i.e., how to take responsibility for oneself) and social skills (i.e., how to work cooperatively with others), through the use of outdoor activities.

bulletReality Therapy - William Glasser developed this popular form of therapy which requires, first and foremost, that the individual (offender) take complete responsibility for his or her behavior and understand that all choices make in life have consequences. It is a unique method of counseling which teaches people how to make more effective choices and how to handle the stresses and problems of everyday life. The William Glasser Institute offers a brief overview of reality therapy and you can learn more about reality therapy from the folks at Anglefire.

bulletRestitution - Restitution refers to restoring something to someone. An offender may be required to return items stolen from his or her victim or compensate the victim in some other manner. By doing so, the offender is "making restitution." Restitution may be ordered by the court directly or determined through the mediation process. 

bulletSex Offender Treatment - One of the most complicated and frustrating of treatments, sex offenders are counseled in hopes of finding the root causes for their sex offending. It is believed that once the causes are understood, healing can take place and reoffending will not occur.

bulletShoplifting Awareness - Offenders caught shoplifting are confronted with the consequences of their shoplifting on the businesses they victimize. Offenders will also undergo psychological counseling to get at the root causes of their deviant behavior.

bulletSkill Development - An example of a skill development program is one which provides treatment to delinquent males who were victims of sexual abuse. Behavior management and cognitive therapy are modes of treatment which may be used in the program. The program's goal is to return clients back to their home and community with skills to cope in these settings. Another form of skill development results in making illiterate offenders literate.

bulletSubstance Abuse Treatment - One of the most common characteristics of gang members is their abuse of various substances (alcohol and other drugs). Substance abuse treatment assists offenders in overcoming their addictions. Sending offenders to prison for drug treatment is like sending them to a drug dealer to be cured. You can visit the site of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.

bulletUse of Speakers - This involves the use of offenders to inform other youth about such things as the consequences of drug addiction, of joining a gang, and what life in prison is like. These offenders want to change their lives and share their experience with others. 

Although the alternative sentence programs described above, and others like them, are more difficult to implement than simply tossing offenders in jail or prison, their ability to reduce gang activity and youth violence are potentially greater and more cost effective than incarceration. It should come as no surprise to hear that incarceration costs more than prevention or treatment due to the high cost of building and maintaining prisons, the annual cost of caring for its occupants, and the likely recidivism of the offender (committing additional crimes upon release from prison and having to be taken through the system again). 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the average cost of incarceration for Federal inmates in 1999 was $21,926. State prison costs vary from about $18,000 to $60,000 per year depending upon the cost of living in the state in question and the amenities provided in the prison (medical prisons, for example, cost more to operate). Alternative sentences varying greatly in their cost depending upon the services rendered and the length of time the offender is in treatment. In some cases, offenders pay for all or a portion of their treatment expenses.

We have a vested interest in having the courts incorporate as many alternative treatments and promising strategies for reducing youth violence as possible. Treatment outside the system is always preferred to treatment within it when the offenses are minor and the offender is not yet a threat to society. If gang activity and youth violence are not on the decline in your community, more community-based treatment programs may be needed for such offenders those already in existence may need to be expanded. Where risks for gang involvement are apparent protective factors need to be put in place.

Probation and parole officers are among the justice practitioners who work with offenders on alternative sentences. The next topic deals with probation- and parole-related solutions.


Additional Resources: Links to sites below should not be construed as an endorsement of them.

You can learn more about mediation and restitution programs.

Here's a Guide to Community-Based Alternatives for Low-Risk Juvenile Offenders from the Koch Institute which reviews 20 community-based programs that have been proven to be effective in dealing with low-risk juvenile offenders. According to the abstractors at the National Criminal Justice Reference Center:

Through a grant from the State Justice Institute and an advisory team of judges and community leaders this Guide to Community-Based Alternatives for Low-Risk Juvenile Offenders was produced offering research and in-depth interviews with 20 program administrators. The methodology for this project was to determine “what works,” programs proven effective and successful at meeting the needs of low-risk juvenile offenders. In addition, it was an effort to provide juvenile court judges and magistrates with the necessary tools to reduce the distance between themselves and the community. Specific criteria were developed in the selection of effective low-risk juvenile offender programs including:

(1) a formal program structure;

(2) measurable outcomes;

(3) a program assessment or evaluation;

(4) outcome or assessment study;

(5) stated objectives;

(6) a responsible government agency or entity;

(7) formal recognition by the court;

(8) emphasis on reintegration and reentry services;

(9) enriched educational and vocational programming;

(10) a variety of forms of individual, group, and family counseling matched to youths’ needs;

(11) opportunities for success and development of a positive self-image;

(12) youth bonding to pro-social adults and institutions;

(13) program components adapted to the needs of individual youth; and

(14) simultaneous, systemic focus on all aspects of youths’ lives.

Most community service programs are implemented to provide ordinance violators, status offenders, first-time offenders, and minor offenders an alternative. The primary participants are youthful offenders who have committed offenses that the court feels can best be handled by accomplishing community service. This guide is a detailed outline of program administrators, structure, funding criteria, oversight, evaluation, and more. In addition, a table cross-referencing program component provides details concerning the types of interventions and services that each program offers and its primary intervention category.

Dr. Tom O'Connor provides some insights into the variety of community-based corrections programs, including alternatives to probation and parole.

Visit the site of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives to learn about several alternatives for helping troubled children and adolescents and the developmentally disabled.

You can read Helping At-Risk Youth: Lessons from Community-Based Initiatives, which provides information on parental involvement, using volunteers for tutoring and mentoring, fund-raising, marketing, and how to monitor programs to improve accountability. This site is sometimes slow to load!

Here are some other examples of alternative sentencing programs:

bulletNARCONON® Drug Rehabilitation and Education Program
bulletCommunity Service Project and the Court Employment Project
bulletChanging Lives Through Literature
bullet The Spencer Recovery Center
bullet Youth Alternative Sentencing Program

© 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.