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

An Introduction to Justice System Solutions

Short-term get-tough strategies that promote the development of more prisons and more police will not lessen the problems of youth gangs. Instead, building self-esteem, promoting self-awareness, mobilizing school and community resources to support youths, and providing real opportunities for establishing positive identities comprise the best strategy for addressing youth gangs. (Blakemore and Blakemore, 1998)

The justice system in the United States is a vast, complex, and a last resort for dealing with all kinds of offenders - gang members included. By the time offenders come to the attention of the justice system they have failed to respond meaningfully to the informal controls supposedly imposed by family, school, faith, and neighborhood. By "justice system" I refer to both the juvenile justice system and the criminal (adult) justice system.

As Blakemore and Blakemore (1998) stated above, the justice system alone will not solve the gang situation. Such an effort is a collective affair including various social institutions. Other chapters in this section of Into the Abyss address what those social institutions could do to reduce gang activity and youth violence. This section, however, is dedicated to what the various components of the justice system could do.

The following review of justice system solutions includes those associated with law, law enforcement (police), the courts, and both institutional- and community-based corrections - the four primary components of the justice system.

Problematic Themes

Before beginning that review, I'd like to point to several problems which run through the various components of the justice system like a common thread. Among the most noticeable to me are a failure to specialize sufficiently in addressing the gang situation, the inaccessibility of juvenile records to police and the criminal (adult) courts, and a lack of coordination and communication between the juvenile- and adult justice systems and their various components (police, courts, and corrections).

Lack of Specialization

While some emerging- and chronic gang communities have gang-specialized units in all the components of their justice system, many do not. This lack of a meaningful organizational structure around the gang phenomenon is problematic. Gangs are a special phenomenon, and a dangerous one which can not be overlooked. They deserve and require special attention in law enforcement, the courts, and in corrections.

By being specialized I refer to having laws put in place especially designed to curtail gang-related activity, police departments with gang units, specially trained juvenile- and adult probation and parole officers with gang member caseloads, prosecutors' offices with one or more gang-designated prosecutors, and judges who specialize in gang-related cases. I believe we better serve the community and gang-related offenders if we specialize. Specialization allows the justice system to respond to gang activity more intelligently and effectively.

The sobering projections about the future of juvenile violence underscore the need for strong, immediate, well-planned, and decisive action to intervene early with efforts to prevent younger children from following in the self-destructive footsteps of many of their older brothers and sisters. 

At the same time, it is imperative that we effectively respond to that small percentage of juvenile offenders who repeatedly victimize the community and who account for the vast majority of serious and violent delinquent acts. We must take immediate steps to improve the capacity of the juvenile justice system to respond to juvenile offenders. If we fail to respond to their needs, the potential costs to society in human lives and productivity will be an onerous and tragic burden to future generations. (Office of Justice Programs, 1996, page)

The Inaccessibility of Juvenile Records

Some of the juvenile justice offices I visited gathered useful and thorough information on their clients. Others did not. Some shared information on their clients with local police, but most did not and could not according to state laws which require juvenile records be kept private (for the eyes of juvenile court personnel only).

In communities in which juvenile records were private, an officer confronted with a 19 year old male gang member could learn nothing from the official record about that young man's juvenile offenses, if any. Was he detained by police as a juvenile? Has he been actively involved in gang activity for the past ten years or just for the last two? Who were his associates in the gang when he was a juvenile? Unless the officer in question knew about the young man's past (or knew other officers who did), the information was unavailable.

In those communities judges, too, were operating in the blind when it came time to sentence such offenders. Since the juvenile record was closed, it was difficult to determine if the sentence imposed was appropriate given the offender's past record. With no record accessible, how would the judge or the community know?

Lack of Coordination and Communication

In most of the communities I visited there was little collaboration between legislators, police, prosecutors and judges, juvenile- and probation/parole officers, and the folks who ran correctional facilities (i.e., detention centers, jails, farms, camps, correctional schools, prisons). Communication and cooperation between the components of the justice system were the exception, not the rule.

Evidence of some of the difficulties police and probation/parole officers have in regards to other elements in the justice system were documented earlier.

Effective Strategies

In order to be effective, efforts to reduce gang activity and youth violence must begin with a coordinated policy of prevention, intervention, suppression and treatment backed up with the resources needed to make each approach effective. 

Prevention refers to education and other efforts which prevent children from entering gangs. Intervention is used with known or suspected gang members (regardless of their degree of affiliation) as a means of bringing them out of a gang. Suppression efforts translate into arrest and the removal of the offending gang member from the community.

When suppression is used, intervention and/or treatment should be offered following conviction. Since over 90% of all imprisoned people in the United States are eventually released from prison (discharged or on parole), what's the use of it all if we don't treatment them (or at least offer treatment) while they are incarcerated?


Among the most effective strategies today are those which find practitioners in the justice system aligned with each other in a shared and clearly articulated approach to reducing gang activity and youth violence. When one thinks of the justice process, it begins with the creation of laws. Then the police enforce them, prosecutors try them in court, and the corrections system is sent those who are convicted for appropriate treatment or punishment.

In similar order, gang behavior is least likely to persist when: laws restricting or forbidding them are clear and well publicized; when police adopt a zero-tolerance policy; when vertical prosecution is used, no plea bargains are struck, hard core offenders are convicted, and appropriate sentences are imposed (alternative sentences or sentences to jail or prison); and when proven prevention and intervention services are offered.

Sentencing is of paramount importance in the justice process. Effective sentencing strategies related to gang activity and youth violence include swift and certain action by police and the courts at the first sign of such behavior (at the earliest age possible), resulting either in treatment of those who wish to and can be treated or removal from the community of those who will not or can not be treated.

Both treatment and confinement require resources. Treatment requires a variety of community-based services sufficient to meet the needs of those who wish to be treated. At present there are too few services available given the number of youths involved in gang-related and violent behavior in communities across the nation.

For confinement, we need humane, non-violent, and secure facilities within close proximity of offenders' homes so some degree of integration of the offender with family members and others outside the facility can be maintained. Unfortunately, our jails and prisons often fall short of meeting these very basic criteria. Violence, and the threat of it, are the stuff of everyday life in confinement, whether it be in a federal or state prison, a jail, or a juvenile detention center, camp, farm, or correctional school. The treatment of juveniles in detention may be a little better but it, too, could use improvement.

But a well-tuned justice system should be our last resort. Success in reducing gang activity and youth violence depends upon: a heightened state of public awareness; parental, neighborhood, and community involvement; the availability of effective prevention and intervention strategies; and a well-tuned justice system.


Another effective strategy is information-sharing between juvenile- and adult justice system practitioners which recognizes no limits on one's access to offenders' records, regardless of the age at which their offenses were committed. One hand must know what the other is doing.


The last part of this chapter deals with promising strategies related to specialization, community-wide involvement, and coordination of services. That said, let's take a look at what legislators could do to help reduce gang activity and youth violence.


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.