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
intervention and suppression efforts. Even Howell (2000),
who questions whether we know enough about prevention to be effective, has
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.
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
Delay the age at which a youth joins a
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
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.
Reduce the frequency and severity of harm
done by gangs and their members.|
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
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
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,
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
Cutting Problems Down to Size
The Bureau of Justice Assistance, in their publication Addressing
Community Gang Problems: A Model for Problem Solving (1997), suggests
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.
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
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)
|Small 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
|One 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.|
|A 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.|
|A 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
|Problems 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
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
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
According to Spergel et al., (1994), there are five basic strategies for dealing with youth
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
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,
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
We'll return to these three underlying strategies and related concerns later in
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
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
Third, regular and peripheral gang
members--to generally address their needs for control and intervention
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
Level of Gang Involvement
and Associated Treatment Approaches
Level of Involvement
in order to keep youths from entering into
gangs. It's all about keeping good kids good.
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).
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.
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.
Resources: For more information on prevention, intervention,
suppression, and reentry socialization, see Irving
Spergel's five-pronged approach to reducing gang activity.
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
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
Michael K. Carlie
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