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.
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.
on the topics below or
continue reading down the page ...
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
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
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
of Justice Programs, 1996, page)
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
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
officers have in regards to other elements in the justice system were
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Michael K. Carlie
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