Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies

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Justice Policy Institute 

When it comes to reducing gang-related crime and preventing youth from taking part, social programs that offer jobs, education, rehabilitation and mentoring are far more effective than law enforcement programs that employ suppression, arrest and imprisonment as primary tactics, according to this meta-analysis.

Researchers analyzed dozens of scientific studies, program evaluations and crime statistics on gangs in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, St. Louis and North Carolina.

The report underscores some surprising findings about gang membership and gang crime, including that gang members commit a relatively small percentage of crimes in most jurisdictions, and that gang membership fell from 850,000 in 1996 to 760,000 in 2004. It also notes that little evidence exists that gangs drive the domestic drug trade, or that law enforcement measures can be directly related to fluctuations in gang activity or crime rates.

“Gangs do not drive crime rates, and aggressive suppression tactics simply make the situation worse by alienating local residents and trapping youth in the criminal justice system,” study co-author Kevin Pranis said in a prepared statement.

Pranis and co-author Judith Greene found that while most youth who join gangs do so between the ages of 12 and 15, the vast majority of gang-involved youth outgrow their gang affiliation within a year or so – without intervention from law enforcement or youth programs.

While the publicly portrayed faces of gang members tend to be black or brown – reflecting estimates by law enforcement sources that more than 90 percent of gang members are nonwhite – the report says that survey data show that white youth account for up to 40 percent of gang members ages 12 to 16. That discrepancy should spark concern over how gang members are identified by the police, the researchers say.

The study also examines the efficacy and costs and benefits of suppression versus prevention approaches. It says that Los Angeles – which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in such gang suppression tactics as mass arrests, surveillance and creating databases of alleged gang members – has seen a negative return on its money. According to the study, the city has six times as many gangs, and at least double the number of gang members, as it did in the early 1980s.

On the other hand, New York City – which has for decades put its money into such prevention as trained street workers, gang intervention programs and strong social work practices – has seen gang-related offenses shrink to a “tiny blip on the New York crime scene” over the last 20 years.

While declining to recommend any specific prevention activity or program, the study authors do recommend that jurisdictions expand the use of evidence-based practices to reduce youth crime; promote jobs, education and healthy communities while lowering barriers to the reintegration of gang members into society; and redirect resources from failed gang enforcement efforts to proven public safety strategies.

In March, U.S. Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2007, which would invest more than $1 billion to beef up suppression activities, including tougher penalties for an expanded list of gang-related activities, tougher sentencing for juvenile gang members and a national database of gangs.

Opponents of the bill argue that it would feed an already hostile perception of young people as well as an unreasonable public fear of youth gangs. Proponents point out that the bill includes $400 million for prevention programs.

The nonprofit Justice Policy Institute is a Washington-based think tank that advocates less reliance on arrests and incarceration in favor of alternative, community-based approaches.