The failures of Gang Prevention

This is an interesting report, seeing that Belize is trying to suppress gang activity and so far have been failing miserably at it. I have spoken on this before in discussions noting that the plans rolled out have done nothing more than quite things down for a short period only to make gang activity and crime return with more vengeance. Please take the time to read this report as it is vital to our strategic planning going forward, I will highlight the main points and link to the full report at the bottom of the page; hope the Government of Belize reads this one.

Gang Wars

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

A Justice Policy Institute Report Published: July 17, 2007 by Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis

Youth crime in the United States remains near the lowest levels seen in the past three decades, yet public concern and media coverage of gang activity has skyrocketed since 2000. Fear has spread from neighborhoods with longstanding gang problems to communities with historically low levels of crime, and some policy makers have declared the arrival of a national gang “crisis.” Yet many questions remain unanswered.

  • How can communities and policymakers differentiate between perceived threats and actual challenges presented by gangs?
  • Which communities are most affected by gangs, and what is the nature of that impact?
  • How much of the crime that plagues poor urban neighborhoods is attributable to gangs? and
  • What approaches work to promote public safety?

Gangs, gang members, and gang activity

Gang Wars presents findings from an extensive review of the research literature on gangs and the effectiveness of various policy responses to gang problems.

There are fewer gang members in the United States today than there were a decade ago, and there is no evidence that gang activity is growing.

It is difficult to find a law enforcement account of gang activity that does not give the impression that the problem is getting worse by the day. Yet the most recent comprehensive law enforcement estimate indicates that youth gang membership fell from 850,000 in 1996 to 760,000 in 2004 and that the proportion of jurisdictions reporting gang problems has dropped substantially.

There is no consistent relationship between law enforcement measures of gang activity and crime trends.

One expert observes that gang membership estimates were near an all-time high at the end of the 1990s, when youth violence fell to the lowest level in decades. An analysis of gang membership and crime data from North Carolina found that most jurisdictions reporting growth in gang membership also reported falling crime rates.

Gang members account for a relatively small share of crime in most jurisdictions.

There are a handful of jurisdictions such as Los Angeles and Chicago where gang members are believed to be responsible for a significant share of crime. But the available evidence indicates that gang members play a relatively small role in the national crime problem despite their propensity toward criminal activity.

Gangs do not dominate or drive the drug trade.

National drug enforcement sources claim that gangs are “the primary retail distributors of drugs in the country.” But studies of several jurisdictions where gangs are active have concluded that gang members account for a relatively small share of drug sales and that gangs do not generally seek to control drug markets.

The public face of the gang problem is black and brown, but whites make up the largest group of adolescent gang members.

Law enforcement sources report that over 90 percent of gang members are nonwhite, but youth survey data show that whites account for 40 percent of adolescent gang members.

Most gang members join when they are young and quickly outgrow their gang affiliation without the help of law enforcement or gang intervention programs.

A substantial minority of youth (7 percent of whites and 12 percent of blacks and Latinos) goes through a gang phase during adolescence, but most youth quit the gang within the first year. One multi-state survey found that fully half of eighth-graders reporting gang involvement were former members.

Most youth who join gangs do so between the ages of 12 and 15, but the involvement of younger children in gangs is not new.

Noted expert Malcolm Klein observes:

“Although some writers and officials decry the 8- and 10-year-old gang member, they haven’t been in the business long enough to realize that we heard the same reports 20 and 40 years ago.”

Leaving the gang early reduces the risk of negative life outcomes, but current policies make it more difficult for gang members to quit.

Gang involvement is associated with dropping out of school, teen parenthood, and unstable employment, but the risks are much smaller for those who leave the gang in a year or less. Yet little attention has been devoted to why and how youth leave gangs, and many gang control policies make the process of leaving more rather than less difficult by continuing to target former members after their gang affiliation has ended.

Gang enforcement

The problems highlighted in the research include:

  • Lack of correspondence between the problem, typically lethal and/or serious violence, and a law enforcement response that targets low-level, non-violent misbehavior.
  • Resistance on the part of key agency personnel to collaboration or implementation of the strategy as designed.
  • Evidence that the intervention had no effect or a negative effect on crime and violence.
  • A tendency for any reductions in crime or violence to evaporate quickly, often before the end of the intervention period.
  • Poorly designed evaluations that make it impossible to draw any conclusions about the effect of an intervention.
  • Failure of replication efforts to achieve results com- parable to those of pilot programs.
  • Severe imbalances of power and resources between law enforcement and community partners that hamper the implementation of “balanced” gang control initiatives.

Police gang units are often formed for the wrong reasons and perceived as isolated and ineffectual by law enforcement colleagues.

A survey of 300 large cities found that the formation of gang units was more closely associated with the availability of funding and the size of the Latino population than with the extent of local gang or crime problems. An in-depth study of four cities determined that gang units were formed in response to “political, public, and media pressure” and that “almost no one other than the gang unit officers themselves seemed to believe that gang unit suppression efforts were effective at reducing the communities’ gang problems.”

Heavy-handed suppression efforts can increase gang cohesion and police-community tensions, and they have a poor track record when it comes to reducing crime and violence.

Suppression remains an enormously popular response to gang activity despite concerns by gang experts that such tactics can strengthen gang cohesion and increase tension between law enforcement and community members. Results from Department of Justice–funded interventions in three major cities yield no evidence that a flood of federal dollars and arrests had a positive impact on target neighborhoods.

“Balanced” gang control strategies have been plagued by replication problems and imbalances between law enforcement and community stake- holders.

Gang program models that seek to balance suppression activities with the provision of social services and supports have been piloted in Boston and Chicago with some success. But the results of attempts to replicate Operation Ceasefire and the Comprehensive Gang Program Model in other jurisdictions have been disappointing. Replications of the Ceasefire model in Los Angeles and Indianapolis produced no evidence that efforts to disseminate a deterrence message had changed the behavior of gang members.

African American and Latino communities bear the cost of failed gang enforcement initiatives.

Young men of color are disproportionately identified as gang members and targeted for surveillance, arrest, and incarceration, while whites—who make up a significant share of gang members—rarely show up in accounts of gang enforcement efforts. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office found that close to half of black males between the ages of 21 and 24 had been entered in the county’s gang database even though no one could credibly argue that all of these young men were current gang members.

Positive public safety strategies

This report does not endorse any particular program or approach for reducing the damage done by gangs and gang members. Instead, it points toward effective actions we can take to reduce youth violence. The most effective route toward reducing the harm caused by gangs requires a more realistic grasp of the challenges that gangs pose. The objective should not be to eradicate gangs—an impossible task—but rather to promote community safety. As one community stake-holder observes, “The problem is not to get kids out of gangs, but the behavior. If crime goes down, if young people are doing well, that’s successful.

Expand the use of evidenced-based practice to reduce youth crime.

Evidenced-based practices are those interventions that are scientifically proven to reduce juvenile recidivism and promote positive out- comes for young people. Rather than devoting more resources to gang suppression and law enforcement tactics, researchers recommend targeting funding to support research-based programs operated by agencies in the health and human services sector.

Promote jobs, education, and healthy communities, and lower barriers to the reintegration into society of former gang members.

Many gang researchers observe that employment and family formation help draw youth away from gangs. White youth have greater access to jobs and education, which may explain why there are many white gang members but little discussion of a chronic white gang problem.

Redirect resources from failed gang enforcement efforts to proven public safety strategies.

Gang in- junctions, gang sweeps, and ominous-sounding enforcement initiatives reinforce negative images of whole communities and run counter to the positive youth development agenda that has been proven to work. Rather than promoting anti-gang rhetoric and programs, policy makers should expand evidence-based approaches to help former gang members and all youth acquire the skills and opportunities they need to contribute to healthy and vibrant communities.

A Gang, by Any Other Name…

Perhaps the least settled issue in gang research is the age-old question: “What is a gang?” It seems that the majority of academic authorities can agree on only one point in this regard: that there is no agreement—neither among the criminologists who study gangs nor among the cops who police them. The picture becomes no clearer when we narrow the issue by asking, “What is a youth gang?” or “What is a street gang?

In American Street Gangs, a popular college textbook, Tim Delaney poses a set of questions drawn from current media depictions to illustrate the problem of defining gangs:

In fact, there is no single definition, although every definition includes some mention of the word, group. For example, is a group of young people hanging out together a gang? What if this group is hanging outside a convenience store talking loud and acting proud? What if this group creates a name for itself, starts identifying members with specific clothing, and uses secret hand signals and handshakes and intimidating nicknames such as “killer” and “assassin”? But the group just described could actually be a sports team! Add to this description the commission of a number of deviant acts and fraternities and sororities would also fit this profile. (Delaney 2005)

In his Crime and Justice essay, Hagedorn says he prefers Joan Moore’s definition:

Gangs are unsupervised peer groups who are socialized by the streets rather than by conventional institutions. They define themselves as a gang or “set” or some such term, and have the capacity to reproduce themselves, usually within a neighborhood.

More recently, Hagedorn — who believes that gangs are reproducing themselves across a world that is increasingly urbanized—has adopted a more global, “postindustrial” characterization of what gangs are:

Gangs are organizations of the street composed of either

  1. the socially excluded or
  2. alienated, demoralized, or bigoted elements of a dominant racial, ethnic, or religious group.

While most gangs begin as unsupervised adolescent peer groups and remain so, some institutionalize in barrios, favelas, ghettoes, and prisons. Often these institutionalized gangs become business enterprises within the informal economy and a few are linked to international criminal cartels. Others institutionalize as violent supporters of dominant groups and may devolve from political or conventional organizations. Most gangs are characterized by a racialized or ethno-religious identity as well as being influenced by global culture. Gangs have variable ties to conventional institutions and, in given conditions, assume social, economic, political, cultural, religious, or military roles. (Hagedorn website)

After many years of fielding squadrons of specialized “gang” units to combat criminal gangs and compiling lists of hundreds of thousands of people in an effort to identify and target gang members and their associates for harsh treatment in the criminal justice system, American law enforcement agencies have not been able to agree upon a common definition. Perhaps the least of the problems posed by this failure is that accurate tracking of gang-related crime statistics is difficult, if not impossible.

Given the lack of consensus about how and when groups of people do or do not constitute a gang, classification of gangs by type is understandably a fuzzy area. Delaney says that while there are many types of gangs, his textbook (2005) is focused on “street gangs,” and he includes only brief discussions of some “non-street gangs”: motorcycle gangs, organized crime, the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, and prison gangs.

Malcolm Klein similarly asserts that prison gangs, skinheads, “stoners,” and motorcycle gangs are not street gangs (Klein 1995). Klein says that skinhead groups do not qualify as street gangs because they are usually inside, and when they go out they are “looking for a target, not just lounging around.” And bikers are usually focused on their motorcycles, out cruising or selling drugs. He says both types of gangs are narrowly focused in their criminality, “always planning something”—while street gangs are more aimless and casual about the trouble they get into.

“Street gangs” versus whatever

There does not seem to be a consensus on how to distinguish between “drug gangs” and “street gangs.” The literature suggests an increasing over- lap of these categories. Malcolm Klein differentiates drug gangs on the basis of characteristics that he says street gangs largely lack: “clear, hierarchical leadership; strong group cohesiveness; a code of loyalty and secrecy”; and a narrow focus on drug dealing to the exclusion of other crimes.

Tim Delaney says that the “drug gang” concept is relatively new, formulated to account for the increasing number of gangs involved in the sale of drugs. He says that we should not be surprised to find that “street gangs” are actively involved in drug trafficking since it constitutes “the number-one criminal enterprise in the world,” and the growing popularity of “crack” cocaine produced new opportunities for urban youth to make money around the same time that legitimate job opportunities were disappearing in their neighborhoods.

A typology of youth violence

Mercer Sullivan finds the definitional ambiguities in gang research a distraction from more vital inquiries:

Youth violence takes many organizational forms. Lumping these together as “gang” phenomena carries distracting baggage. The perennial fascination with gangs is partly, overly romantic. It can, and sometimes does, cloud our view of what we should be placing front and center, the problem of youth violence. (Sullivan 2005)

Sullivan proposes using more neutral analytic terms to make important distinctions among group criminal activities that may—or may not—be related to gang membership: action-sets, cliques, and named gangs:

  • An action-set is simply an aggregation of individuals cooperating together in a coordinated line of activity. They need not continue their coordinated activity over any specified period of time or share any explicit recognition among themselves or in the view of others that they are associated on any permanent basis.
  • A clique is an aggregation of individuals with some form of diffuse and enduring bonds of solidarity, at least for the near term. They engage in a variety of activities together on some kind of regular basis. They need not have a name or leader or share ritual symbols of group membership.
  • A named gang has the properties of a clique, along with a name and explicit criteria of membership recognized by members and others. Gangs are far more likely than cliques to have designated leadership, formalized rules and codes of con- duct, and ritualized symbols of membership, but they do not have to have all or any particular combination of these.

PART I – Gangs and Antigang Interventions in Three American Cities

The big American crime story for more than a decade has been the happy news that crime rates are on the decline. Notwithstanding recent media reports of an uptick in violent crime in certain cities, crime rates are still at a 30-year low.

Residents of New York City have enjoyed more than a decade and a half of exceptional crime rate reductions, breaking historic records for declines in lethal violence, as well as record declines across the entire range of index crimes that are roughly double the rates of decline for the nation as a whole (zimring 2007). In March 2007 New York City’s police commissioner, Ray Kelly, announced that over the first three months of the year the murder rate had fallen to a low not seen since the early 1960s, when the first reliable homicide statistics were recorded (Moore 2007).

Gang crime is spreading “like a cancer,” according to Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert S. Mueller III. The FBI boasts of its national antigang strategy, involving local police in a network of 131 FBI-led task force operations across the country, coupled with a national “gang targeting enforcement and coordination center,” a national “gang intelligence center,” and a national task force based in Washington, D.C., that is focused on Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, working to merge some 100,000 criminal records from Central America with the FBI’s criminal history database (FBI 2007).

While overall crime rates in Los Angeles have been declining for the past half-decade, gang crime is reported to be rising. Citing a 15.7 percent increase in gang crime over 2006, Los Angeles police chief William Bratton declared a crackdown on gangs in January 2007. By the end of March more than 800 people had been arrested by gang enforcement officers. Almost half were said to be members of 11 gangs Bratton designated as “the worst” in Los Angeles. Many arrests were for very minor charges—curfew violation, drug possession, vandalism, noncompliance with probation conditions.

Meanwhile, in America’s other “gang capital,” where the police department reports that nearly half of all murders arise from gang activity, a 278-page report published by the Chicago Crime Commission contended that gangs posed an increasing threat in Chicago’s suburbs (Chicago Police Department 2005; Chicago Crime Commission 2006). No media coverage of national crime trends has failed to note that New York City stands out from the pack in terms of its exceptional crime decline. High rates of chronic gang-rated violence in Los Angeles and Chicago are also noted by the media, yet an important contrast that lies within the exceptional New York crime experience has escaped media notice.

The next section of this report briefly recounts a 50- year history of gangs and antigang interventions in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The accounts reveal a sharp contrast between the experience in New York, where the primary strategies were in- formed by social theory and grounded in traditional social work practice, and in the other cities, where police suppression held the upper hand.

CHAPTER 1 – Gangs in New York City

Successive and pronounced cycles of gang violence have been documented in New York City, reaching back well over a century. Social historian Eric Schneider has chronicled the trajectory of the serious and widespread gang problem that plagued the city from the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s, during the transformation of the city’s economy from war production and manufacturing to financial and legal services, insurance, real estate development, and civil service jobs (Schneider 1999).

African American and Puerto Rican families migrating into the city faced a highly racialized labor market that systematically excluded them from well-paying job categories and racial segregation that shunted them into older housing stock located in the poorest neighborhoods. Adolescent peer groups formed within crowded city schools competed outside of school with hostile ethnic groups for recreational space along neighborhood borderlines.

As neighborhood rivalries spread, the schools them- selves became contested territory between competing groups of cynical youngsters of color who were well aware of the class, racial, and ethnic barriers that stood between them and opportunities for good jobs in the future. Dropping out of school only stiffened the barriers they faced, trapping them within the city’s secondary labor market, where discrimination and exploitation rendered employment an episodic experience at best.

War veterans returning to the city introduced emerging street-corner-fighting groups of disaffected youths to more violent tactics and more sophisticated weaponry. The rate of youths killing youths increased markedly as a result. In 1947 the recognition that gang violence was a serious problem led to establishment of the New York City Youth Board.

Schneider recounts how street workers sought to establish relationships with youths they perceived to be gang leaders and tried to deflect gang members from fighting. They organized athletic programs at neighborhood recreation centers, offering advice supplemented with field trips to amusement parks, beaches, and camp sites. They provided resources for organizing neighborhood social events, block parties, and “hall dances.” Their most highly valued service by far was intended to draw individual gang members away from gang activities by locating job opportunities for them.

By 1955 the Youth Board was deploying 40 street gang workers in troubled neighborhoods across the city. Ten years later the number had swelled to 150. While gang members were initially suspicious of street workers, they were also status-conscious—well aware that an officially assigned street worker enhanced a gang’s prestige by underscoring its reputation as a dangerous group. Mediation sessions engineered by street workers between hostile gangs dampened violent confrontations, but they also provided a level of recognition approaching celebrity for certain gang leaders.

Even the modest resources street workers provided in their efforts to channel gang members’ energies toward more positive social activities could bolster gang cohesion. Yet the city’s dedicated commitment to street work as the primary strategy to combat violence among street gang members fostered a far more constructive, less counterproductive response to gang violence than the harsh law enforcement tactics employed by police to suppress gangs in other cities.

Street work was augmented by more conventional forms of social work and gang intervention programs provided by neighborhood service organizations, churches, settlement houses, and recreation centers. The effectiveness of agency-based programs was limited by issues of control, as competing gangs contested for ownership of the “turf” represented by a particular recreation center, or resisted direction from professional social service staff.

More successful interventions drew from a social work model pioneered decades earlier by Clifford Shaw, a sociologist who established the Chicago Area Project (CAP) in the 1930s. CAP used local residents as family counselors and organizers in their own neighborhoods to engage the energies of youth and adults in projects designed to improve and strengthen social control in the community.

Mobilization for Youth (MFY) was launched in 1962 with a rich mix of federal and city funding that enlarged the substantial stream of Ford grant dollars. Five settlement houses located in the target area coordinated an expanded cadre of street workers who mounted intervention efforts with more than a dozen neighborhood street gangs. A raft of job training, job placement, subsidized employment, and social service programs were established to prevent gangs from forming by providing new channels of opportunity for neighborhood residents. A team of activist lawyers was assembled to protect and expand residents’ legal rights, advocating for social benefits and economic entitlements.

Predictably, given the agency’s generous public funding base, MFY’s managers soon found themselves engulfed in a media-fueled political firestorm, almost completely alienated from the government agencies that provided that funding. MFY’s political opponents charged loudly that agency staff included communists, that MFY organizers were responsible for the 1964 uprising in Harlem, and that vast sums of public money were being misspent (Moynihan 1969).

The Youth Board recruited neighborhood troublemakers to serve as youth leaders, organizing summer recreation and employment programs in these communities. Neighborhood youth councils hired the “worst kids” to staff these programs, while city hall bent civil service rules in order to offer them the possibility of upward mobility into permanent jobs in the city bureaucracy. Schneider describes how former gang members helped to quell a 1967 uprising in East Harlem, after which the local youth council was used to channel welfare assistance and jobs to community residents, cementing the direct political ties between the mayor’s office and East Harlem’s youth leaders.

By no means, however, does Schneider credit the Lindsay administration’s political embrace of community action or the gang intervention programs with solving the structural problems that had given rise to the city’s serious postwar gang problem, or with providing effective crime control in the long term:

Gang intervention in all its forms attempted to disrupt the operations of the gang, especially gang fighting, and press youths into making conventional adjustments to working-class life. Because these programs define gangs as the problem, rather than as a symptom of other problems, they were unprepared to confront the fundamental issues that had led adolescents to form gangs in the first place. These were the limits of liberal social reform. The result was that gang intervention, where it successfully disrupted gangs, inadvertently substituted individual deviance in the form of drug use for the collective resistance of the gang. By the mid-1960s, authorities decided that gangs were no longer the problem. They had been displaced by the rapid spread of heroin among New York’s adolescents.

Of course, heroin did not actually displace gangs in New York City, any more than gang intervention programs erased their existence. But bolstered by other contributing factors—radical movements and community politics that siphoned off the most talented gang leaders, the Vietnam War and a wartime economic boom—the city’s sustained investment in street work and gang intervention programs had worked to reduce the level of gang violence below a threshold level, or “tipping point,” where cycles of gang attacks and retribution become acute and continuous. And the spread of heroin that followed the decline in gang violence supplanted the ethos of gang warfare with an emerging drug culture:

The relationship between drug use and the decline of the gangs was synergistic: the collapse of the gangs furthered drug use and the rising tide of drug use eroded the remaining gangs’ abilities to preserve their members and themselves…. Public policy and gang interventions pushed the number of gangs below the threshold level in the early 60s, but it was heroin that kept them there, as one epidemic gave way to another.

Schneider points out that the phenomenon of youth gangs never entirely died out in the city. Cycles of gang activity have continued to the present time, with periodic episodes of gang violence flashing above the tipping point in one distinct area of the city after another.

New York’s leading urban anthropologist, Mercer Sullivan, closely examined the nature of youth violence in New York during the last decade of the 20th century, when “supergangs” from Los Angeles and Chicago were reported to be proliferating across the nation (2005). He conducted a systematic search for stories published in city newspapers between 1990 and 2000 that included the term “youth gang,” pinpointing 1997 as the year when “nationally famous gangs finally came to New York City, at least in name.” Newspaper references to Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, and Ñetas surged that year, raising fears about an impending gang-related crime wave. Yet police reports from the same period indicate that serious violent crime was on the decline in the city well before, and long after, media reports of the emergence of a new generation of violent gangs. Something was going on, but clearly it did not produce a crime wave.

Sullivan’s data contained signs of the gang emergence phenomenon, but he also found evidence that media reports of sensational gang conflict were primarily a relabeling of existing local rivalries. Group violence, when it erupted, stemmed primarily from conflict (“beefs”) between informal cliques of youths who lived on particular city blocks and shared a strong sense of identification and loyalty. Sullivan reports that youths in such local groups were familiar with the phenomenon of youth gangs, but they tended to distinguish these from their block-group loyalties:

In the early period of fieldwork, 1995–1996, beefs between these groups were described in terms of these place-based identifications, as, for example, “between Redwood and the Desert.” By the end of the fieldwork, following the spike in newspaper gang reports of 1997 . . . these conflicts had been redefined. We heard at one point that Redwood and Castle had joined together to fight the Bloods from the Desert who were trying to “take over the neighborhood.”

Sullivan wonders whether law enforcement estimates of increasing gang prevalence reported in the National Youth Gang Survey conducted during the period may have largely resulted from a wave of moral panic over gangs.

CHAPTER 2 – Gangs in Chicago

While New York City has experienced only sporadic gang problems since the mid-1960s, Chicago’s institutionalized neighborhood gangs have remained an entrenched problem since the 1950s. John Hagedorn has traced the roots of violence among Chicago’s institutionalized “supergangs” all the way back to post–World War I race riots, when white workers and the Ku Klux Klan expelled African Americans from industrial jobs they had obtained while whites were fighting overseas (Hagedorn undated). During the Depression, as jobs in every sector became scarce and Mexicans were subjected to mass deportation, youth violence increased as small “corner groups” of black and brown youths clashed against white ethnic gangs in defense of their neighborhoods.

In Stateville, his groundbreaking study of prison culture, James Jacobs examined how police repression and mass imprisonment of Chicago’s “supergangs” helped to transform both Illinois prisons and the gangs themselves (Jacobs 1977). In the 1960s federal social policy turned to a focus on juvenile delinquency, and federal dollars began to flow into grassroots organizations in high-crime urban neighborhoods. Around the same time, Chicago street gang leaders began to gravitate toward grassroots political action.

On the South Side, community organizers and church leaders cultivated relationships with charismatic gang members and fostered their development as legitimate grassroots leaders. Both Blackstone Rangers (the street gang that evolved into the Black P. Stone Nation and ultimately became known as the El Rukns) and Devil’s Disciples were drawn into The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), Saul Alinsky’s dynamic grassroots organization. TWO garnered substantial financial support from both private foundations and the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to create youth employment programs while thumbing its nose at city hall and drawing intense opposition from the Chicago police.

Similar developments ensued on the West Side, where the Lawndale-based Conservative Vice Lords, advised by a Peace Corps veteran, founded Operation Bootstrap. They allied with Jesse Jackson and soon attracted funding for a host of social action programs. But at the same time that the Lindsay administration in New York was embracing community action programs such as these, and deliberately enlisting gang leaders from among the city’s “worst kids” to serve as staff for recreation and jobs programs, Mayor Richard J. Daley’s response was quite different.

In 1968 both the Blackstone Rangers and the Vice Lords gave Daley his due by working hard to upset his political machine at the polls. Daley promptly increased the gang intelligence unit from 38 to 200 officers. Illinois prisons were soon flooded with gang members sent en masse by the Chicago courts. Gang leaders swept into prison as “political prisoners” with a vivid sense of their organizational power. Once they were there, they set vigorous recruitment drives in motion. By 1972 at least half of Illinois prisoners were said to be affiliated with gangs. As the gangs took over the prison market for contraband and solidified their control of prison programs, gang affiliation provided members with both economic and social benefits.

Gang members came to prison with a spirit of rebellion against authority gained on the streets of Chicago during the 1960s and a sense of racial and social solidarity stemming from a mix of street gang traditions and radical black nationalism. They quickly cast aside the traditional “inmate code”—with its hierarchy based on offense type and a “do your own time” ethos—replacing it with strong communal values of solidarity between gang brothers and loyalty to gang leadership. Prisoners learned how to “do gang time.”

Prison guards saw themselves undermined by the “pro-inmate” reforms imposed by the new management in power above them and challenged by the belligerent rebels they faced on the tiers. The level of intergang violence increased. As guards became more and more demoralized, prisoners increasingly resisted their control, mounting periodic food strikes, physical attacks on guards, and bouts of taking hostages. In 1973 a prison guard was murdered.

The experience of surviving mass imprisonment toughened the hide of Chicago gang members and consolidated their organizational structure, making them more durable and contributing to their institutionalization. Hagedorn explains the concept of institutionalized gangs as follows:

There have been many attempts to categorize gangs, but in the context of this study, US gangs can be differentiated between interstitial and institutionalized gangs. The US father of gang research, Frederic Thrasher, used interstitial to describe early Chicago gangs. It literally means “in between” or the transitions of youth, as from one neighborhood to a better one and/or from childhood to young adult. Most US gangs were, and continue to be, transitional interstitial groups, rising with one set of peers and declining as its peer group matures.
But in some cities, particularly Chicago and Los Angeles, gangs institutionalized, or persisted over generations. To say that a gang has institutionalized signifies that it persists despite leadership changes (e.g. killed, incarcerated, or matured out), has an organization complex enough to sustain multiple roles of members (including children), adapts to changing environments without dissolving (e.g. police repression), fulfills some community needs (economic, security, services), and organizes a distinct outlook of its members (sometimes called a gang subculture). (Hagedorn undated)

As the drug economy heated up in the 1980s, the flow of city services and public housing resources began to recede from Chicago projects like Robert Taylor. New York’s epidemic of lethal youth gun violence in the late 1980s appeared to fade in the face of concentrated drug enforcement operations by the police. During the same period Chicago police ad- dressed increased levels of violence with a crackdown on the institutionalized gangs that John Hagedorn says may only have increased the level of violence. Police repression only fragmented gang leadership, causing intragang violence.

Gang fragmentation and violence were further ex-acerbated in Chicago during the mid-1990s when the public housing authority shifted millions of dollars from needed maintenance and renovation of the city’s high-rise projects to finance a drug enforcement campaign involving massive gang sweeps.

When that strategy proved largely fruitless, the city began to demolish the projects, forcing more than a hundred thousand tenants to move. Instead of building new housing for them, the housing authority gave displaced tenants rent vouchers. Scattered relocation to other segregated, high-crime areas of the city dislocated people from long-established social networks and increased friction and violence among Chicago gangs.

Hagedorn maintains that the displacement of tens of thousands of African American families, sometimes fracturing renegade splinter groups off institutionalized gangs, has played a role in the persistence of high levels of violence due to gang wars and drug market disputes. While New York’s homicide rate plummeted, Hagedorn points out, Chicago’s declined only slightly (Hagedorn undated).

CHAPTER 3 – Gangs in Los Angeles

Los Angeles has experienced a long-term pandemic of youth gang homicide and violence (California Attorney General’s Office 2004). A quarter-century-long “war on gangs” has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, yet—according to a new report by the Advancement Project—there now are six times as many gangs and at least double the number of gang members in the Los Angeles region (Advancement Project 2007).

New York’s sporadic cycles of gang violence have never paralleled the deadly carnage experienced in Los Angeles. In Street Wars, his insightful study of gangs, Tom Hayden writes that some 10,000 of Los Angeles’ young people have been killed in gang conflicts over the past two decades (Hayden 2005). The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) reported 11,402 gang-related crimes in 2005 (Advancement Project 2006). That same year, the New York Police Department reported just 520 (New York City Mayor’s Office of Operations 2005). FBI crime reports indicate that New York’s homicide rate that year was about half of Los Angeles’, while the rate of reported gang crime in Los Angeles was 49 times the rate reported in New York City.

What can account for such startling contrasts? Is New York City in denial about the nature and size of its street gang problem? Or is the city still benefiting from policies set more than 30 years ago that approached the problem of street gangs in ways that avoided the excesses of police suppression that have characterized the policing of gangs in Los Angeles? Do Hayden, the Advancement Project, and the LAPD exaggerate the seriousness and scale of Los Angeles’ gang problem? Or has police suppression helped to turn the Los Angeles gang problem into a gang pandemic? A short review of gang suppression efforts in Los Angeles is offered here in order to provide a historical context that may shed some light on these puzzling questions.

During World War II, groups of Mexican immigrant “pachucos” in stylized “zoot suits” and wide-brimmed hats drew hostile police actions when sailors home on leave surged repeatedly into East Los Angeles to attack them. While a handful of sailors were arrested for fighting, hundreds of the Latino youths they attacked were arrested for disturbing the peace.

Hayden recounts that the early African American gangs in Los Angeles — the Slausons and the Gladiators—were formed in the Watts ghetto projects after World War II in response to white youth violence during integration of the public schools. Blacks were beaten and burned in effigy by white public school cliques. African Americans living in Watts faced public signs in nearby Compton, then a white working class enclave, that warned that “Negroes” had to be out of town by sundown. The white Spook Hunters gang enforced boundary transgressions; when backup was needed it was supplied by the LAPD.

In an interview, a veteran of the 1965 Watts uprising told Hayden about growing up as a Baby Slauson:

“We resisted the term ‘gang.’ We saw the police as a gang, we saw ourselves as a club formed because of discrimination. You couldn’t get into the Boy Scouts, you couldn’t go to the public swimming pools, you couldn’t go into Inglewood. Southgate was off limits.”

During the same years that the Youth Board’s streetwork efforts in New York City were showing success in assuaging the epidemic of gang violence there, legendary LAPD chief William Parker — who maintained a segregated police force until 1960—resisted the notion of using social work approaches to quell gang violence (Davis 2006). In his view, gang members were incorrigibles, deserving nothing more than a locked-down prison regime. He characterized the city’s barrio residents as just one step removed from “the wild tribes of Mexico.” During the civil rights era, black gangs and black nationalist groups fused in Parker’s mind into a single menace of communist inspired black power.

As though to confirm Chief Parker’s paranoia, hostilities between South Central gangs seemed to evaporate in August 1965 as members joined Watts residents in battle against the LAPD and the National Guard during five days of sustained civil disturbance. The cessation of most gang hostilities continued more or less for the next half decade, as many prominent gang leaders took up roles in liberation movement organizations. But after the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party was dismantled by the combined efforts of the FBI and the LAPD, old gang hostilities reemerged.

Mike Davis says that as bad as it was, the outbreak of youth violence never came close to resembling the phantasmagoric images portrayed by law enforcement with inflated statistics and supercharged rhetoric. Davis characterizes the media-fueled hysteria over gangs in Los Angeles during the period as “a terrain of pseudo-knowledge and fantasy projection.” Hysterical rhetoric soon led to a hyperrepressive reaction by police. Davis has described a massive Operation HAMMER gang sweep in Los Angeles during the late 1980s:

A thousand extra-duty patrolmen, backed up by elite tactical squads and a special anti-gang taskforce, bring down the first act of “Operation HAMMER” upon ten square miles of Southcentral Los Angeles between Exposition Park and North Long Beach, arresting more Black youth than at any time since the Watts rebellion of 1965. Like a Vietnam-era search-and-destroy mission—and many senior police are proud Vietnam veterans — Chief [Darrell] Gates saturates the street with his “Blue Machine,” jacking up thousands of local teenagers at random like so many surprised peasants. Kids are humiliatingly forced to “kiss the sidewalk” or spreadeagle against police cruisers while officers check their names against computerized files of gang members. There are 1,453 arrests; the kids are processed in mobile booking centers, mostly for trivial offenses like delinquent parking tickets or curfew violations. Hundreds more, uncharged, have their names and addresses entered into the electronic gang roster for future surveillance.

The first civil gang injunction was sought against the Playboy Gangster Crips in 1987 by then–city attorney James Hahn. He requested a restraining order spanning 26 square blocks south of Beverly Hills with 24 specific prohibitions, including “congregating in groups of two or more” and “remaining in public streets for more than five minutes at any time of day or night.” The injunction would have banned the wearing of gang colors, imposed a curfew on juveniles, and required that gang members would be subject to arrest for simply passing through the area without an authorization document signed by a “lawful property holder or employer.” Hahn was forced to modify his application after opposition erupted from the American Civil Liberties Union—but his gang-busting ambitions were truly fulfilled the following year, when a RICO-style bill he authored in collaboration with Ira Reiner, Los Angeles district attorney, was enacted in Sacramento. The Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP) made participation in gang activity a felony (Davis 2006

The use of civil gang injunctions (CGIs) accelerated in the mid-1990s. Cheryl Maxson reports that at least 22 gang injunctions had been issued in the city of Los Angeles by July 2004. The scope of these gang suppression tools can be drawn very broadly:

The number of gang members can range from a handful to the hundreds, and the initial string of names often is followed by “and any other members.” The targeted area can be a housing complex, several square blocks, or an entire city, but most often CGIs are spatially based, neighborhood-level interventions intended to disrupt the gang’s routine activities. Prohibited behaviors include illegal activities such as trespass, vandalism, drug selling, and public urination, as well as otherwise legal activities, such as wearing gang colors, displaying hand signs, and carrying a pager or signaling passing cars, behaviors associated with drug selling. Nighttime curfews are often imposed. Most disturbing to legal scholars and advocates is the commonly applied prohibition against any two or more named gang members associating with one another. (Maxson, Hennigan, and Sloane 2005)

A gang database was first compiled in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles County sheriff the same year that James Hahn sought his injunction against the Playboy Gangster Crips. The Los Angeles database was taken statewide a decade later when the California Department of Justice created CalGang, which tracks some 200 datapoints of personal information and gang-related information. By 2003, Loren Siegel reported, 47 percent of African American men in Los Angeles County between the ages of 21 and 24 had been logged into the Los Angeles County gang database, and more than a quarter-million Californians had been entered into the CalGang database by law enforcement personnel across the state (Siegel 2003).

A person can be entered in the CalGang database if a law enforcement officer determines that the person meets at least two of ten criteria (Advancement Project 2006):

  1. Admits gang membership or association.
  2. Is observed to associate on a regular basis with known gang members.
  3. Has tattoos indicating gang membership.
  4. Wears gang clothing, symbols, etc., to identify with a specific gang.
  5. Is in a photograph with known gang members and/or using gang-related hand signs.
  6. Is named on a gang document, hit list, or gang-related graffiti.
  7. Is identified as a gang member by a reliable source.
  8. Is arrested in the company of identified gang members or associates.
  9. Corresponds with known gang members or writes and/or receives correspondence about gang activities.
  10. Writes about gangs (graffiti) on walls, books, paper, etc.

Civil injunctions and other public order measures, such as curfews for urban youth, have been embraced by many as progressive alternatives to draconian incapacitation mandated by antigang sentencing enhancements such as are embodied in STEP (Harcourt 2001). Yet introduction of these “alternatives” has not served as a substitute for police repression and imprisonment of street gangs in Los Angeles. Rather, the array of antigang measures have combined to compound the impact of Los Angeles’ perennial crackdowns on gangs.

In 1998 a CRASH officer working out of the Ram- part police precinct house, Rafael Perez, was charged with theft of eight pounds of cocaine from a police locker. Facing a long prison term, Perez broke the code of silence and revealed the inner workings of the antigang squad. Operating jointly with federal agents in the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, CRASH officers in the Rampart district conducted gang sweeps in 1997 and 1998 that resulted in Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deportation of 160 people. Some INS officials in Los Angeles were appalled at the tactics being used. INS documents handed over to a Los Angeles Times reporter revealed complaints by INS officers that CRASH was waging war against “a whole race of people.” Perez testified that potential witnesses to police misconduct were being handed over to the INS for deportation.

Activists charge that instead of targeting individuals or their criminal activity, gang injunctions sweep entire communities into a net of police surveillance. Moreover, they argue, injunctions, for the most part, are imposed not on the largest gangs or the most notorious gang neighborhoods but rather in areas that are near to white neighborhoods or those most attractive for gentrification. At a city council hearing on these injunctions held in May 2006, community residents from areas under injunction complained of severe curtailment of basic freedom and of routine police harassment.

The history of failed gang strategies compiled by the Advancement Project for the Los Angeles city council in 2006 notes that Proposition 13 (the landmark tax reform measure enacted by California voters in 1978) resulted in virtual elimination of all of the city’s prevention and early intervention programs. Around the same time, the city began to construct its monolithic gang suppression machinery (Advancement Project 2006). In contrast, New York City has made considerable efforts to maintain an adequate level of city funding for youth services, recreation, and employment programs (Advancement Project 2007).

To this day, suppression has remained the primary strategy to address Los Angeles’ serious, chronic problem of gang violence. The Advancement Project research team reports that more than two-thirds of the money available for gang reduction efforts is directed to suppression efforts by the LAPD and the city attorney’s office, with the largest portion invested in police “gang impact teams.”

Los Angeles is well into the third decade of its failed “war on gangs.” Despite massive, militarized police actions, strict civil injunctions, draconian sentencing enhancements, and a gang database that appears to criminalize upwards of half of its young African American male residents, gang violence is worsening, according to media reports. With a reported 720 active gangs and 39,488 gang members, Los Angeles retains the dubious honor of being the gang capital of the world.

PART II – What Research Tells Us

There is a wealth of research on the origins of gangs and the activities and characteristics of their members, as well as a smaller but useful body of literature that seeks to evaluate the effectiveness of various gang control strategies and tactics. Unfortunately, public officials rarely draw on this resource, opting instead to make policy by anecdote.

Gang policy is often made in moments of perceived crisis, when law enforcement agencies and elected officials feel intense pressure to “do something” about gangs immediately—a poor atmosphere for considering questions that will determine the success or failure of a gang control strategy.

Sober policy making is made even more difficult by the larger-than-life quality that attaches to any conversation about gangs. Gangs thrive on publicity of all kinds. Their members often go to great pains to make themselves visible and to exaggerate the threat they pose to society. They are often aided and abetted by politicians and the media, who also thrive on the sensational reaction that gangs—with their menacing tattoos, graffiti, colors, and hand signs—elicit from the public.

Gang researchers are not immune to America’s long romance with gangs, but for the most part their work provides a helpful antidote to the overblown rhetoric of gang members and those who would make the eradication of gangs a national priority. Their work can help us answer critical questions that should — but usually don’t—guide policy making: Who are gang members? Why do they join gangs, and—equally important—why do they leave? What do gangs do? What is the relationship between gang activity and crime? What do we want to accomplish through our gang control efforts, and how do we expect it to happen? Should we focus on gangs at all?

The following chapters seek to shed light on these questions and debunk some of the most tenacious myths about what gangs are and how gang problems can best be addressed.

CHAPTER 4 – Down for the Count: Exploring the Size and Makeup of the Gang Population

It is difficult to find a law enforcement account of gang activity that does not give the impression that the problem is getting worse by the day. A review of the most recent National Gang Threat Assessment from the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations (NAGIA) suggests that gangs pose a rapidly growing threat to public safety (2005). Nationally, NAGIA claims that gangs are associating with organized crime; gang members are becoming more sophisticated in their use of computers and technology; Hispanic gang membership is on the rise; California- style gang culture is migrating and spreading gangs’ reach; women are taking more active roles in gangs; “Indian Country” sources are reporting escalating gang activity; and motorcycle gangs are expanding their territory.

Many crimes committed by gang members are unrelated to gang activity.

The report paints an even bleaker picture of regional developments. Nearly half of the key regional findings—11 of 23—contain a variant of the words increase or grow. All of the following are reputed to be on the rise in one or more regions: neighborhood/homegrown and hybrid gangs; gangs in Hispanic immigrant communities; gang violence and drug trafficking on Indian reservations; graffiti and tagging; gang activity around schools and college campuses; cooperation between gangs to facilitate crime and drug trafficking; sophistication in the planning and execution of gang crime; identity and credit card theft perpetrated by gang members; and use of firearms by gang members. There is, by contrast, no mention of reductions in any form of gang activity.

Data on the prevalence of gang problems and gang membership

The National Youth Gang Survey

The primary source of law enforcement reports on the prevalence of gang problems is the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS). The survey is distributed annually to all law enforcement agencies that serve suburban counties and cities with 50,000 or more residents, along with a random sample of police departments that serve small cities and rural counties. Each agency is asked to describe the nature of the local youth gang problem and estimate the number and demographic characteristics of gangs and gang members in its jurisdiction. Respondents are told to exclude from their reports motorcycle gangs, prison gangs, hate groups, and gangs composed entirely of adults. Response rates have ranged from 84 to 92 percent since 1996 (Egley, Howell, and Major 2006).

Arlen Egley explains that significant year-to-year variation in the number of gang members reported by a given jurisdiction often reflects a “change in approach” rather than a change in the gangs themselves (personal communication).

Law enforcement estimates of local gang membership can fluctuate from year to year based on changes in police practices.

The number of active gang members reported by the Detroit Police Department nearly doubled between 1996 and 1997, rising from 2,000 to 3,500 before plunging to 800 the following year (Bynum and Varano 2003). Yet gun crimes—which were considered by Detroit researchers to be indicative of gang activity—moved in the opposite direction, falling between 1996 and 1997 and rising the following year. Elsewhere, the fluctuations can be tied directly to training and funding for gang enforcement efforts. Indianapolis Police Department estimates of local gang activity jumped from 80 gangs and 1,746 members in 1995 to 198 gangs and 2,422 members in 1997 after the city was selected to participate in a federal gang initiative (McGarrell and Chermak 2003).

Despite these flaws, NYGS data do provide a general picture of the scope and direction of the gang problem as it is perceived by law enforcement. The most recent NYGC report indicates that the United States had roughly 24,000 youth gangs and 760,000 gang members in 2004 (Egley and Ritz 2006). The numbers are daunting, immediately conjuring images of a marauding army of gun-toting criminals half the size of the active U.S. military. But NYGC data indicate that the size and reach of gangs have actually declined over the past decade. The estimated gang population is down from roughly 850,000 in 1996, and the proportion of jurisdictions reporting gang problems has fallen sharply.

The number of jurisdictions reporting gang problems fell sharply at the end of the 1990s.

Youth surveys

The second source of information on the prevalence of gang activity and the characteristics of gang members is a group of youth surveys conducted over the past 15 years. Surveys can provide greater consistency than estimates generated by law enforcement agencies employing varied definitions and data collection methods. And they can track behavior that does not come to the attention of law enforcement.

Yet surveys are limited by how representative the sample is of the general population. Most surveys of youth gang activity target specific locations or segments of the youth population, making it difficult to derive general conclusions about the larger youth gang population. The results of youth surveys—like law enforcement surveys—also depend on the perceptions of survey subjects and their willingness to answer questions honestly.

The application of NLSY prevalence rates to 2000 U.S. Census counts produces a total estimated 12- to 16-year-old gang population of roughly 440,000. The figure is roughly half the size of the NYGC estimate, but this result is not entirely unexpected. The 440,000 estimate includes only gang members between the ages of 12 and 16, while NYGC staff estimate that adults make up two-thirds of gang members known to law enforcement (Egley, Howell, and Major 2006). The NYGC estimate and the projection from NLSY prevalence rates appear to fall within the same ballpark, assuming that some of the 440,000 self-reported gang members are never identified by law enforcement and that there are another 500,000 or so gang members over the age of 16 who are not captured by the NLSY survey.

Squaring the data: Law enforcement versus youth surveys

Urban and rural youth were equally likely to report current and lifetime gang membership.

The law enforcement and youth survey results part company when it comes to the composition of the youth gang population. NYGC data indicate that gangs are primarily an urban phenomenon: four in five large-city law enforcement agencies report a gang problem compared to fewer than one in seven rural agencies. Even in the late 1990s, no more than a quarter of rural law enforcement respondents reported gang problems. But urban and rural youth were equally likely to report current and lifetime gang membership — 2 percent and 5 percent, respectively — according to NLSY data (Snyder and Sickmund 2006).

Girls account for a quarter to a third of adolescent gang members, according to youth surveys.

The NYGC and NLSY data also point toward very different gender breakdowns. NYGC reports that women and girls made up just 6 percent of gang members known to law enforcement in 2000 (Klein and Maxson 2006). Yet NLSY prevalence rates—3 percent for boys and 1 percent for girls—indicate that girls should account for roughly a quarter of the adolescent gang population. The three-to-one ratio of male-to-female gang participation found in the national youth survey is supported by the results of other youth surveys, which found ratios ranging from three to one to nearly one to one (Klein and Maxson 2006). A research team led by Finn-Aage Esbensen reports an even lower two-to-one ratio of male-to-female gang participation based on a survey of nearly 6,000 eighth-grade public school students (Esbensen and Winfree 2001).

The most striking difference between gang population estimates generated by law enforcement and by youth surveys may be their racial and ethnic com- position. Law enforcement reports indicate that the overwhelming majority of gang members are Latino or African American.

African Americans and Latinos were roughly 15 times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be identified by the police as gang members.

Latinos accounted for nearly half (49 percent) of the estimated youth gang population in 2004, according to NYGS data, even though they make up just 17 percent of 12- to 24-year-olds in the United States (Egley, Howell, and Major 2006; 2000 U.S. Census). Blacks accounted for more than a third of known gang members (37 percent)—more than twice their 15 percent share of the adolescent/young adult population. Non-Hispanic whites, by contrast, accounted for 63 percent of adolescents/young adults but just 8 percent of gang members identified by law enforcement. In other words, African Americans and Latinos were roughly 15 times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be identified by the police as gang members.

Whites account for more than 40 percent of adolescent gang members, according to youth survey data.

The disparities between youth surveys and law enforcement accounts of gang membership do not necessarily prove that either source is inaccurate. Law enforcement and youth surveys use different methods to gather information on distinct (if overlapping) populations. Self-reports of gang involvement by youth will not necessarily match the perceptions of police who deal with a larger and older group that has come into contact with law enforcement because of real or perceived criminal conduct. Nevertheless, there must be some explanation for why youth and young adults identified as gang members by law enforcement look so different from youth who identify themselves as gang members.

There are three likely explanations.

  • First, youth who self-identify as gang members may be “fronting,” or involved in groups that call themselves gangs but do not engage in serious delinquency. These youth might never come to the attention of law enforcement, or their claims to gang identity might be ignored, because they are not “real” gang members.
  • Second, the composition of the youth gang population may change drastically between the adolescent years that are captured in youth surveys and the young adult years when law enforcement contact is more frequent. For example, if attrition rates were higher for white than nonwhite gang youth at the end of adolescence, the youth gang population could become less white.
  • Third, the disparity could be a result of biases in the way gang members are identified or the way data are collected that cause law enforcement officials to underestimate the gang involvement of white, female, and rural youth/young adults and overestimate the gang involvement of nonwhite, male, and urban youth/young adults.

The Justice Policy Institute is a public policy institute dedicated to ending society’s reliance on incarceration and promoting effective solutions to social problems.

Do youth surveys mix “bad apples” with oranges who only pretend to be bad?

The finding that whites accounted for a significant proportion of self-reported youth gang members came as a surprise to many gang researchers when it was first reported in 1998 by Esbensen and Winfree (Esbensen, personal communication). Many researchers expressed skepticism that white youth who reported gang involvement were “real” gang members, arguing in effect that the survey findings confused true “bad apples” with youth pretending to be bad. Similar objections have been raised to the conclusion—supported by many youth surveys—that females make up a larger share of the gang population than law enforcement reports indicate.

White gang members report committing delinquent acts at the same rate as black and Latino peers.

On the other hand, the GREAT survey data show that the self-reported gang membership of white youth was as “real” as that of nonwhite peers across various measures of delinquency and intensity of gang participation. The researchers found that the only statistically significant difference in rates of of- fending between white, African American, and Hispanic gang members was a lower propensity among African Americans to use drugs. There were no statistically significant differences in self-reported rates of property offending, person offending, or participation in drug sales.

Youth typically begin to exhibit somewhat higher levels of delinquency before joining gangs, but their delinquent behavior peaks during periods of gang involvement.

They experimented with more and less restrictive definitions of self-reported gang membership to see whether the demographic and other variables changed with the definition. The definitions included (1) past gang membership; (2) current gang membership; (3) current membership in a gang that participates in delinquent acts; (4) current membership in a delinquent gang with some level of organization (e.g., initiation rites, colors, leaders); and (5) describing oneself as a current “core” member of an organized delinquent gang (Esbensen et al. 2001).

The data show a nonsignificant relationship between gang definition and the racial/ethnic breakdown of gang membership, but in the opposite of the expected direction. White gang youth were more likely than black or Latino gang youth to report being core members of an organized delinquent gang. A third of current white gang members (33 percent) fit the most restrictive definition of gang membership, compared to a quarter of Latino gang youth (24 percent) and one in five black gang youth (19 percent). Esbensen notes that white gang members tended to have higher scores on various risk scales than nonwhite gang members, which might explain the intensity of their gang involvement (personal communication).

Do rural, female, and white gang members quit gangs before their urban, male, and nonwhite peers?

Young adults account for two-thirds of gang members identified by law enforcement, while the youth cohort accounts for just a third. If the demographic profile of young adult gang members differed significantly from that of youth members, it might help to explain the gap between law enforcement and self-report data on the demographics of gang membership.

Whites appeared no more likely than blacks and Latinos to leave gangs at an early age.

The survey found that, among youth who reported ever having participated in a gang, half of white youth and less than half of nonwhite youth identified themselves as current gang members. Neither survey provides evidence of higher turnover among white gang youth in early and mid adolescence.

No comparable survey data exist for young adults, so it is impossible to determine whether, and to what degree, differences in gang attrition rates change the face of gang membership in the young adult years. John Hagedorn and other gang ethnographers have argued that the loss of jobs and social capital brought about by deindustrialization has kept young inner-city men involved in gangs into their adult years (Hagedorn 2005). It is certainly plausible that white gang youth who have better employment and educational opportunities available to them are more likely to give up gang life than African American and Latino youth with few prospects.

The white gang undercount

NYGC staff report that there were roughly 770,000 youth gang members in 2000, including around 250,000 African Americans, 370,000 Latinos, 90,000 whites, and 60,000 members of other racial groups. The application of NLSY prevalence rates to race and gender components of the 2000 youth population produces an estimate of 470,000 12- to 16-year-old gang members, including 130,000 African Americans, 110,000 Latinos, 200,000 whites, and 30,000 members of other racial groups. These competing estimates are not easy to reconcile.

Even if every white gang member quit by the age of 17, the white gang population would be two times the law enforcement estimate.

The first issue is the apparent undercount of white gang members, a problem that persists even if we accept the unproven hypothesis that whites age out of gangs faster than nonwhite peers. If we assume that every single white gang member left the gang by the age of 17, there would still have been 200,000 white youth gang members in 2000—nearly twice the law enforcement estimate.

The nonwhite gang overcount

This point leads us to the second issue: an apparent overcount of black and Latino gang members. Based on NLSY prevalence rates, in 2000 there should have been 130,000 black gang members between the ages of 12 and 16—just about half the total law enforcement estimate of 250,000. If we assume that youth gang members fall in the 12- to 24-year-old age group,7 then black young adults would have to remain involved in gangs at two-thirds the rate of 12- to 16-year-olds in order to meet law enforcement estimates.8 There is no evidence that African Americans are joining gangs in large numbers after the age of 16, so the numbers would work only if a large majority of black 16-year-old gang members remained active well into young adulthood.

This scenario further depends on law enforcement correctly identifying every single black youth gang member in the United States.

In order to meet a law enforcement estimate of roughly 225,000 black male gang members (based on a population of 250,000 gang members that is 94 percent male), the gang prevalence rates for 17- to 24-year-old black males would have to go even higher. The numbers work only if black young adult males participated in gangs at a slightly greater rate than adolescents and all black male gang members were detected by law enforcement; or if young black men participated in gangs at much higher rates than black male youth and not all gang members were detected by law enforcement.

This calculation assumes that all Latino youth and young adult gang members are identified by law enforcement. It also ignores the difference in the gender breakdown of law enforcement and youth survey gang population estimates. If half of youth gang members and all adult gang members were detected by law enforcement, the overall prevalence of gang membership would have to rise from 3.5 percent among youth to 5.5 percent among young adults.

Do law enforcement agencies find the type of gang members they look for?

The mental gymnastics required to square law enforcement gang estimates with youth survey data are convoluted, forcing us to carefully consider the possibility that the law enforcement estimates are simply wrong. There are much simpler explanations for why law enforcement would tend to underestimate white gang populations and overestimate nonwhite gang populations.

First, suburban, small-town, and rural law enforcement agencies may be less capable of detecting and tracking gang activity than urban police agencies. Small-town officers may not recognize gang activity, and small-town police departments may find it more difficult to establish and maintain gang databases. These factors could contribute to the undercount of white gang members, who are more likely to live in majority white suburbs and towns than are nonwhite gang members.

Second, the practices employed by urban law enforcement agencies to identify and track gang members may contribute to the nonwhite overcount. Gang databases are notoriously unreliable because there are often too few controls on who is put in them and also because too little effort goes into removing from the database people who are no longer active gang members.

Third, there is ample evidence that police misidentify minority youth as gang members based on their race and ethnicity, style of dress, and association with gang peers. Loren Siegel notes that, according to a report prepared by the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, “46.8 percent of the African American men between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-four in L.A. County have been entered into the police gang-tracking database” (2003). Siegel also cites a 1993 New York Times report that “two of three young black men in Denver were on a gang suspect list.

As an NAACP official put it at the time:

“They ought to call it a blacklist. … It’s not a crackdown on gangs; it’s a crackdown on blacks.”

Esbensen argues that minority youth are disproportionately identified as gang members because that is who law enforcement officers have been trained to see:

You find what you’re looking for. The training manuals for police departments; law enforcement experts that lecture to community groups and go to police officer trainings— they all perpetuate the myth that gang members are racial and ethnic minorities. Cops are trained to look and that’s what they find. The same applies to boys and girls. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department training manual says the best indicator of gang membership is self-affiliation except with girls because they’re lying. The media reiterates the myths. (Personal communication)

The failure of law enforcement to recognize white gang activity should not come as a complete surprise. There may be very good reasons for small- town and suburban police to avoid labeling youth as gang members. The overwhelming majority of gang members are not sociopaths but troubled youth. A police officer who looks at a delinquent 14-year-old and sees a future criminal has every reason to put him in a gang database. But an officer who sees a future solid citizen or the son of a family friend may conclude that “boys will be boys” no matter what
gang signs the kids think they’re throwing.

CHAPTER 5 – Blood In, Blood Out? Why Youth Join Gangs and How They Leave

During the next 12 months, hundreds of thousands of adolescent boys and girls will join gangs or form new ones. That’s the bad news. The good news: nearly all will tire of the violence or outgrow their gang fascination, and most will do so in a year or less. Contrary to popular myth, the vast majority will not face the threat of violence from their gang brethren when they leave, although they may continue to be targeted by rivals. And many will meet hostile treatment from social institutions that refuse to accept their status as former gang members.


Prevalence of gang membership

Most youth do not join gangs, but the appeal of ganging crosses demographic and geographic lines.

Malcolm Klein and Cheryl Maxson emphasize that gang members do not make up a majority of youth, even among high-risk groups in urban settings: “Perhaps the strongest message in this research is that even with unrestricted definitions in high-risk populations, most youth—7 or 8 out of 10—do not join gangs throughout adolescence” (2006). On the other hand, gangs claim a sizable minority of youth, and the appeal of ganging crosses demographic and geographic lines.

Klein notes:

For many decades, the initial entry into gangs has been at around 11 years of age (initial, not typical), and so there is little room for change downward. Although some writers and officials decry the 8- and 10-year-old gang member, they haven’t been in the business long enough to realize that we heard the same reports twenty and forty years ago. (1995)

Risk factors

A number of risk factors are associated with gang membership, but no single factor or set of factors can successfully predict which youth will become gang members. The variables that correlated most strongly with gang membership among participants in the Rochester Youth Survey included negative life events, positive values about drugs, and association with delinquent peers (Thornberry 2001b). The most powerful protective factors were education-related and included commitment to school, attachment to teachers, and parents’ expectations for school.

Researchers working on the Seattle Social Development Project found similar results (Thornberry 2001b). Availability of drugs, externalizing behaviors, learning disabilities, having “bad” peers, hyperactivity, and low school commitment were associated with gang membership. 2 Social competence, conventional beliefs, and attachment to con- ventional peers significantly reduced the likelihood of gang involvement.

Thornberry notes that gang membership is strongly associated with problems across multiple domains. The Rochester Youth Survey research team found that “a majority (61 percent) of the boys and 40 percent of the girls who scored above the median in seven risk factor domains were gang members” (cited in Wyrick and Howell 2004). The variables that predicted gang membership among Rochester and Seattle youth survey participants were concentrated in the peer, school, and personal domains. But the role of community factors (such as availability of drugs and neighborhood integration) and family factors (such as supervision, parental attachment to the child, proviolent attitudes, and family instability) was also significant. To put it another way, gang members are youth for whom everything is going wrong.


It is commonly believed that gang membership is a one-way street leading inevitably to death or jail. This myth is perpetuated not only by the media but also by gang members who exaggerate the stakes of membership in order to underscore the importance and permanence of their collective bond:

During the course of the interviews, many gang members expressed the belief that it is impossible to leave the gang. A number of subjects told us that the only way to exit the gang was to be killed. Such beliefs have their foundation in the role of threats of violence for maintaining gang solidarity and membership in the face of threatened and informal sanctions. (Decker and Van Winkle 1996)

Nothing could be further from the truth. Decker and Van Winkle continue:

“Despite such statements, the majority of active gang members (63 percent) told us they knew at least one person who had left their own gang”

The Rochester Youth Survey research team, which tracked 1,000 high-risk youth into adulthood, found that a large majority of members quit after a brief stay in the gang:

Gang membership turned out to be a rather fleeting experience for most of these youth. Half of the male gang members reported being in a gang for 1 year or less, and only 7 percent reported being a gang member for all 4 years. Two-thirds (66 percent) of the females were in a gang for 1 year or less and none reported being a member for all 4 years. (Thornberry, Huizinga, and Loeber 2004)

Why youth quit gangs

It is surprising that more attention has not been devoted to the question of why and how youth leave gangs. The salutary effect of desistance from gang membership is reason enough to pursue a research and policy agenda that aims to accelerate turnover among gang members. Yet the gang literature is practically devoid of research on desistance. The primary source of information on leaving the gang is a set of interviews conducted by Scott Decker and Barry Van Winkle in the early 1990s with 99 current and 24 former St. Louis gang members (1996). Results that are based on such a narrow sample cannot claim to be authoritative, but they do provide a helpful point of departure for thinking about desistance from gang activity.

A single factor dominated the responses of former gang members who were asked why they gave up the gang life: “All twenty-one individuals who answered this question told us, flat out, that their experience with violence had been the primary motivation for leaving the gang.” This finding is at first surprising since researchers have long noted that violence can strengthen cohesion among gang members.

The following was a fairly typical response to the question “Why did you decide to leave the gang?”:

Well after I got shot, I got shot in my leg. You know how your life just flash? It like did that so I stopped selling dope, got a job, stayed in school, just stopped hanging around cause one day I know some other gang member catch me and probably kill me.

These individuals described having “grown up,” “grown out of it,” taken on “new responsibilities,” or simply “got[ten] too old” for the gang life. The maturation process was often linked to having children. Safety concerns accounted for the second-largest set of responses, and moves to new neighborhoods or out of the city also played a role in some cases. The St. Louis and Denver interviews of former gang members share one critical feature: mention of motives related to law enforcement or the criminal justice system (fear of arrest or incarceration, for example) was almost entirely absent.

These findings point to a mismatch between traditional gang control policies, which seek to deter gang activity through the use of criminal justice sanctions, and the reality of gang membership. The research team that worked on the Denver Youth Survey found little evidence that arrest or incarceration can deter delinquency or gang membership (Huizinga, personal communication). Huizinga describes the group’s findings:

For gang members, it is the same as for other youth: very little effect, especially for incarceration. They don’t see [the criminal justice system] as weak or a paper tiger…but there is a litany, especially from gang members, that being arrested and incarcerated is just to be expected—a rite of passage. In our qualitative research we asked what they learned. The answer was to run next time, to be more careful. They figured out one more thing to do to avoid apprehension. Some say they learned things, especially while incarcerated, and made contacts. (Personal communication)

Ironically, active gang members interviewed by Decker and Van Winkle were likely to endorse traditional gang control tactics as effective means to deter gang membership (1996). The gang members’ top suggestions were to “(1) talk to individuals about the hazards of life in the gang, [and] (2) provide stricter punishments or discipline for those considering joining the gang.” 8 Ball, a 15-year-old Hoover Gangster Crip, suggests that other youth could be “scared straight” despite the fact that the tactic had failed with him:

8 Ball: You have to talk to them so you have to catch them at an early age and show them. Bring in some guy that got shot up in a gang, “Look what happened to me, a broken jaw or broken bones and stuff.” You got to talk to them. There was a movie called Scared Straight and I looked at that and it kind of changed my mind about everything.

Interviewer: But you are still in the gang.

8 Ball: Yeah because I didn’t trip off that because I was young then. I keep telling myself that I’m going to stop, that’s what I be saying. I’m going to try to stop, but that’s hard to do. You got your reputation.

How youth quit gangs

Current gang members interviewed by Decker and Van Winkle maintained that gang members must be “beaten out” or “shoot a close relative, usually a parent.” But the researchers found “little evidence that leaving the gang requires group consent.” Former gang members “scoffed at these notions, particularly the obligation to shoot a parent as a condition of leaving a gang.”

Two-thirds of former members (13 of 19) indicated that they “just quit” the gang, while the next-largest group said that they had moved to another state (4 of 19). Just two former gang members reported having been formally “beaten out” of the gang. The following was a fairly typical exchange between an interviewer and a former gang member:

Interviewer: How did you get out?
Ex007: You just stop claiming.
Interviewer: That’s all?
Ex007: See, that’s stupid shit. Them young people. They fickle-minded, they don’t know shit. I ain’t got to kill shit [to get out of the gang].

Some interviewees described opting to be “beat out” of the gang, often for the sake of children whom they “don’t want to end up like [themselves].” The process of being beat out did not appear to deter most youth from leaving the gang, since a large majority of Denver members quit before the age of 18. The principal barrier to leaving a gang is not fear of punishment by the gang but the difficulty many gang members face when they try to make new lives for themselves.

Identification of gang members is seen as an essential tool in gang intervention efforts. But the gang label can make it more difficult for youth to leave the gang. Former gang members may be targeted by law enforcement long after their active participation in the gang has ended. Gang education efforts may dissuade employers from offering jobs to former gang members or youth who merely look like gang members. The refusal of major social institutions to recognize a former gang member’s new status can even filter down to rival gangs:

Police and school officials may not be aware of the decision of individuals to leave the gang or may not take such claims seriously, and records may not be purged of prior gang status. In such cases, the institution continues to treat the individuals as a gang member. When representatives of official agencies (e.g. police, school) identify an individual as a gang member, they are sending a powerful signal to rival gang members as well as to people in the community about the gang involvement of that person. Such a symbol may have consequences for how that individual is treated.

Consequences of gang membership

The negative consequences of past gang involvement persisted well into adulthood for participants in the Rochester Youth Survey (Thornberry, personal communication). At the age of 30, former gang members were much more likely to report being unemployed, receiving welfare, committing crime, or carrying a gun than peers who had never joined a gang.

Thornberry reports that the risk of negative out- comes varied significantly depending on the duration of gang involvement. Males who spent a year or less in a gang were no more likely than nonmembers to be unemployed or receiving welfare by the time they reached 30. “Transient” gang males were more likely than nongang peers to report higher rates of delinquency and gun carrying at the age of 30, but they were less delinquent than “stable” gang peers. The Rochester Youth Survey’s pool of female gang members was too small to distinguish between the long-term consequences of transient and stable gang involvement.

Gang control policies that fix the gang label on youth do just the opposite: they keep former gang members from acquiring the social capital they need in order to survive in mainstream society. And they deter youth from leaving the gang by ensuring that they will be treated as pariahs no matter what they do. The scarcity of research on this topic provides further evidence that policy makers have little interest in reclaiming gang youth, despite claims to the contrary.

Thornberry points out that there is a strong body of evidence on “what works” to keep youth on track, and that these approaches should be the focus of policy and research efforts:

In contrast to the gang prevention literature, in the general literature on preventing delinquency and serious delinquency, there are model programs that have been shown to reduce delinquency and violence. Rather than deal directly with the gangs, use gang membership as a marker to get kids into high-impact treatment programs. Second, figure out which of those programs can be tailored and focused to problems of gang members. (Personal communication)

CHAPTER 6 – Public Enemy #1? Gang Crime Myths and Realities

Mayors and U.S. Attorneys are on the front lines in our communities and know better than anyone that gangs have become an increasingly deadly threat to the safety and security of our Nation’s citizens.

For the most part, gang members do very little— sleep, get up late, hang around, brag a lot, eat again, drink, hang around some more. It’s a boring life; the only thing that is equally boring is being a researcher watching gang members.

The dominant public discourse treats gangs as a particularly virulent subset of the crime problem. James Short and Lorine Hughes argue that this tendency has affected gang studies, which largely “regard gangs as a fractal of crime” (2006, emphasis in original). The tendency to equate gangs with the most spectacular forms of crime has also generated a set of public myths about the relationship between gangs and crime.

These myths hold that:

  • Most or all gang members are hardened criminals.
  • Gang members spend most of their time planning or committing crimes.
  • Gang members are responsible for the bulk of violent crime.
  • Gangs largely organize and direct the criminal activity of their members.

There may be a handful of gangs and gang members who meet this description. Researchers who study gangs generally find, however, that most “gang crime” is not well planned or centrally directed, but is instead committed by individual members or small groups on an ad-hoc basis.

Ethnographic and survey research have fairly consistently shown that:

  • The seriousness and extent of criminal involvement varies greatly among gang members.
  • Gang members who engage in crime nonetheless spend most of their time in noncriminal pursuits.
  • Gang members account for a small share of all crime (including violent crime), even within communities and neighborhoods where there are gang problems.
  • Much of the crime committed by gang members is self-initiated and is meant to serve personal rather than gang interests.

What is a gang crime?

Law enforcement officials generally employ one of two definitions of gang crime for the purposes of tracking and measuring the problem. The first counts all crimes committed by individuals who are believed to be gang members as gang-related, regardless of the nature of the offense or the circumstances surrounding it. The second and more restrictive definition includes only gang-motivated crimes that are believed to have been committed for the benefit of the gang or as part of a gang function.

Many crimes committed by gang members are unrelated to gang activity.

Gang-motivated crimes can be further divided into two categories: self-directed crimes that are initiated and organized by individuals or small groups of rank-and-file gang members, and gang-directed crimes commissioned or orchestrated by gang leaders or the gang as a whole. Finally, gang-motivated crimes can be understood in terms of instrumental actions that are intended to advance the material interests of the gang or its leaders, and expressive actions that show gang pride and demonstrate that the group is more fearless than its rivals by defending turf, avenging past injuries, and so on.

Consider the following four cases:

  1. A gang member gets in a fight with another man who makes a pass at his girlfriend at a party.
  2. A gang member assaults a young man affiliated with a rival gang who has ventured onto territory claimed by the subject’s gang.
  3. A gang member is asked by older gang members to go on a “mission” into enemy territory to find and attack rival gang members.
  4. A gang member is asked by gang leaders to punish a witness who testified against another member.

All four cases would fall under the member-based definition of gang crime, but the first would not meet the motive-based definition because the fight had nothing to do with the gang. The third and fourth cases could be considered gang-directed incidents, but not the second, which was initiated spontaneously by the individual in question.

The fourth case could represent an instrumental effort to advance gang members’ material interests by deterring witnesses from testifying against the gang. The third case, by contrast, depicts what is probably an expressive use of gang violence that is more likely to harm than to help gang members’ material interests by generating further violence and drawing unwanted attention from law enforcement.

The disorganized character of most gang crime does not reduce its significance. Nor can we ignore the moments when the wrong set of circumstances generates the kind of gang threat that we most fear.

Measuring gang crime and delinquency

There are three methods for measuring gang crime and delinquency:

  • self-reports of delinquent activity by youth who identify themselves as gang members;
  • self-reports of victimization by people who believe that their attacker was a gang member; and
  • police reports of crimes committed by known or suspected gang members (typically generated at arrest).

Each type of data has methodological weaknesses. Youth self-reports may inflate or minimize delinquent behaviors if the respondents seek to exaggerate or conceal their involvement in them. Most surveys of youth gang activity target specific locations or segments of the youth population, making it difficult to derive general conclusions about the larger youth gang population. Finally, many of the relevant surveys include only youth under the age of 18 and ignore a young adult gang population that is of great interest to law enforcement, although the Denver and Rochester youth surveys have continued to collect information from participants into their adult years.

Researchers have found that law enforcement gang membership and crime statistics are not a reliable basis for tracking trends or comparing jurisdictions.

How much crime and delinquency do gangs and gang members generate?

To repeat, most gang members’ behavior is not criminal, and most gang members’ crimes are not violent. And of course, most violent people are not gang members, so it’s not very useful to define gangs in terms of violent crime alone.

Juvenile delinquency

Data from youth surveys indicate that gang members commit delinquent acts at much higher rates than nongang peers and account for a significant share of juvenile crime. The research teams that conducted the multi-year Denver Youth Survey and the Rochester Youth Survey found that gang members were responsible for a disproportionate share of self- reported delinquency (Thornberry, Huizinga, and Loeber 2004).

Gang members are responsible for a disproportionate share of delinquency, but most delinquent acts are committed by youth who are not gang members.

The Denver and Rochester Youth Surveys, the Seattle Social Development Project, and a fourth longitudinal study of youth in Montreal all found that higher rates of self-reported delinquency preceded gang member- ship (Thornberry 2001a). These findings suggest that seriously delinquent youth select themselves, or are selected by peers, for gang membership.

But the group effect of gang membership appears to exceed the impact of factors that contribute to individual delinquency. Thornberry concludes that “prior to joining the gang, gang members have some-what higher rates of violent offending than do non- members, but the predominant change in behavior patterns occurs during periods of active gang membership. A similar pattern is observed for general delinquency and property crime.


One estimate of gang crime amounts to less than 6 per- cent of all crime in the United States.

Reliable data on the extent of gang crime do not exist. David Curry, Richard Ball, and Scott Decker produced estimates of total gang membership and gang crime for 1993—a peak moment for juvenile crime in the United States—by tabulating data from law enforcement surveys and using statistical estimates for jurisdictions that failed to provide information in the surveys (1996). Their method produced a “conservative” estimate of roughly 380,000 gang members and 440,000 gang crimes, and a “reasonable” estimate of 560,000 members and 580,000 crimes.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program recorded more than 14 million serious (Part I) violent and property crimes in 1993. If a range of 440,000 to 560,000 accurately captured the number of serious property and violent crimes committed by gang members in 1993, then gang members would have been responsible for 3.1 percent to 4.1 percent of serious crime in the United States.

The National Youth Gang Center estimates that there are roughly 24,000 youth gangs with 760,000 members in the United States. If just one member of each youth gang committed a single homicide each year, the annual number of gang homicides would reach 24,000—nearly 10,000 more homicides than the nation experienced in 2005 under any circumstances.

Most law enforcement agencies reported zero youth gang homicides between 2002 and 2004.

Gang-related homicides happen occasionally in a large number of jurisdictions and are a major problem in a handful of cities, according to the surveys. Murders committed by family members and partners are a more serious issue in most jurisdictions.

Policy makers and the public at large generally believe that gang killings are fueled by struggles for control of the illegal drug trade. Yet researchers have consistently found that drug motives are present in a very small proportion of gang homicides. Carolyn and Richard Block conducted a comprehensive analysis of gang homicides in Chicago at the height of the crack epidemic and concluded that guns, not drugs, were behind a spike in gang killings (2001).

The perceived need to uphold a code of honor drives violence among gang members more than the interests of the gang or its members:

Donald Black (1993) and Mark Cooney (1998) note that the violence associated with such concerns appears to be overwhelmingly “moralistic” rather than “predatory.” That is, it occurs in response to “a violation of standards of acceptable behavior” rather than as a means of achieving personal gratification. (Cooney, p. 4)


Research results in three gang problem cities show that gang members were responsible for less than 10 percent of violent crime.

Researchers working at the local level have also reported that known gang members account for a small fraction of violent criminal activity, even in cities and neighborhoods that report serious gang problems.

The proportion of violent crimes in which the victim believed the perpetrator to be a gang member peaked at 10 percent of all victimizations in 1996 before declining 6 percent in 1998 and remaining stable thereafter.

It is often assumed that gang leaders orchestrate violence in order to secure control of drug markets and other criminal enterprises. This notion has been challenged by findings from ethnographic research that gang violence is often expressive in nature and initiated from below. Kolin Chin interviewed 62 male members of Chinese gangs in New York’s Chinatown in 1992 and found that, while fighting was common among the gang members he interviewed, the violence originated in personal disputes and gang rivalries rather than in instrumental concerns (1996). He also reported that leaders of Chinatown’s youth gangs and adult criminal organizations were more likely to restrain than to encourage gang violence.

Drug distribution

National and local law enforcement officials have long argued that gangs are heavily involved in drug trafficking and distribution, but the evidence behind the contention is thin. The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) reported in the October 4, 2005, is- sue of Narcotics Digest Weekly that gangs (including street gangs, prison gangs, and outlaw motorcycle gangs) are “the primary retail distributors of drugs in the country.” The National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations (NAGIA) makes a similar claim in its most recent National Gang Threat Assessment, which is based on a survey of gang investigators at 455 law enforcement agencies (2005).

Marijuana is the only drug for which a majority of law enforcement respondents reported “moderate” or “high” gang involvement in distribution.

Just a quarter of law enforcement agencies in Southern states indicated moderate or high gang involvement in the distribution of methamphetamine (24.9 percent), despite local media reports that have suggested much closer ties between gangs and meth trafficking.

Gang members arrested for drug sales were no more likely than nonmembers to carry weapons or engage in violence associated with the sale.

Perception and reality

All of the available evidence indicates that gang members play a relatively small role in the crime problem despite their propensity toward criminal activity. Gang members appear to be responsible for fewer than one in four drug sales; fewer than one in 10 homicides; fewer than one in 16 violent offenses; and fewer than one in 20 index crimes. Gangs themselves play an even smaller role, since much of the crime committed by gang members is self-directed and not committed for the gang’s benefit. The question, then, is why the problem of gang crime is so commonly overstated by law enforcement and media reports.

The gangs of Charlotte/Mecklenburg County, for example, are said to engage in:

homicides, threats against law enforcement, firearm possession, drug possession, assaults, fighting, kidnapping, carjacking, armed robbery, home invasions, vandalism (graffiti), auto theft, breaking into vehicles, restaurant robberies, gun trafficking, extortion, prostitution and gambling.

The list of alleged gang activities creates the impression that every Charlotte gang member is a sociopath with a long criminal record, or, at a minimum, that every gang contains murderers, drug traffickers, carjackers, armed robbers, and their ilk. A quick review of the national gang data dispels any such idea.

The typical gang is not an army of killers or even potential killers. It is a group of youth and young adults who are alienated from mainstream society and caught up in a mythical world of excitement and danger. The damage that these young people do to themselves, to each other, and to more than a few bystanders is very real. But as Klein and many other researchers have observed, most gang members are more talk than action. A more realistic assessment of the gang contribution to the crime problem is needed if policy makers are to avoid playing into the gang myth by inflating the dangers to public safety posed by gangs.

CHAPTER 7 – Getting Less for More: The Failed Legacy of Gang Enforcement

When the existence of a gang problem has been
announced or acknowledged by public officials, the conversation generally turns to how law enforcement should solve it. The following are fairly typical policy responses to the emergence of a gang problem:

  1. Form a specialized gang unit within the police department if one does not already exist.
  2. Launch a crackdown in high-crime neighborhoods by adding police patrols, aggressively enforcing public ordinances, and using every available opportunity to stop and question local residents.
  3. Target alleged gang “leaders” and “hard-core” gang members for heightened surveillance and stiff criminal justice sanctions.

Other policy makers may propose adoption of a fourth option—a “balanced” approach that combines the gang enforcement tactics described here with provision of services and supports to gang members and gang-afflicted communities. The choice of a gang enforcement strategy is frequently based on political and institutional considerations. Officials seek strategies that let the public know they are “doing something” about the problem without requiring fundamental changes in the police department’s operations.

The official response to an emerging gang problem is rarely based on a solid understanding of gang issues or a coherent theory of what an intervention should accomplish. The hysteria that greets the sudden emergence of a gang problem creates a poor atmosphere for considering the questions that will determine the success or failure of a gang control strategy: What are its objectives? Whom will it target? And what effect will the initiative have on the targets in order to achieve the objectives?
The objectives of a gang control effort depend on whether the problem is defined as gang violence, gang crime, or the gangs’ very existence. Law enforcement officials often take the public position that gangs must be eradicated. In the words of Captain Ray Peavy, who heads the Los Angeles sheriff’s homicide bureau, “Everyone says: ‘What are we going to do about the gang problem?’ It’s the same thing you do about cockroaches or insects; you get someone in there to do whatever they can do to get rid of those creatures” (Garvey and McGreevy 2007).

The problems highlighted in the research include:

  • Lack of correspondence between the problem, typically lethal and/or serious violence, and a law enforcement response that targets low-level, nonviolent misbehavior.
  • Resistance on the part of key agency personnel to collaboration or implementation of the strategy as designed.
  • Evidence that the intervention had no effect or a negative effect on crime and violence.
  • A tendency for any reductions in crime or violence to evaporate quickly, often before the end of the intervention period.
  • Poorly designed evaluations that make it impossible to draw any conclusions about the effect of an intervention.
  • Failure of replication efforts to achieve results comparable to those of pilot programs.
  • Severe power and resources imbalances between law enforcement and community partners that hamper the implementation of “balanced” gang control initiatives.

The following sections describe common gang enforcement strategies and explore findings of program evaluations from 17 jurisdictions.

Institutional responses: The rise of police gang units

Over the past decade and a half, we have witnessed a proliferation within law enforcement agencies of specialized units that focus on gang enforcement. The formation of a gang unit is often viewed as a rational response to an emerging gang threat. But researchers have concluded that gang units are more often formed in response to pressure on police to “do something,” or as a way to secure additional resources for the agency. Once gang units are launched, the experts find they often become isolated from the rest of the department, a development that can render them ineffective or even facilitate corruption.

Roughly half of local law enforcement agencies with 100 or more sworn officers maintain special gang units, according to a 1999 survey, including 56 per- cent of municipal police department, 50 percent of sheriff’s departments, and 43 percent of county police agencies (Katz and Webb 2003a). In 2003 Charles Katz and Vincent Webb estimated that the total number of police gang units (including state police agencies) stood at 360, most of which (85 percent) were no more than 10 years old (2003b).

Neighborhood gang suppression

The 1980s and 1990s saw a significant shift away from prevention and treatment responses to gang activity in favor of suppression (Katz and Webb 2003a). The specific aims of suppression programs differ: some aim to halt potentially lethal behaviors such as gun carrying, while others seek to drive youth out of gangs entirely. But suppression efforts generally share a focus on specific geographies or gangs, and they require the investment of law enforcement resources in stepped-up efforts to monitor gang members.

The purpose of suppression is to reduce gang-related activity by current gang members, and to reduce the number of people who choose to participate in gangs, by providing for swifter, severer, and more certain punishment. The guiding assumption is that, in the words of Malcolm Klein, “the targets of suppression, the gang members and potential gang members, will respond ‘rationally’ to suppression efforts [and] will weigh the consequences of gang activity, redress the balance between cost and benefit, and withdraw from gang activity” (Katz and Webb 2003a).

The reality of gang suppression is more complicated. Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, argues that gang membership is not a rational choice but rather a desperate response to profound misery (2005). He believes that police attempts to deter gang activity by making life more difficult for gang members miss the fact that youth join gangs because they are already miserable. The research literature on gangs also indicates that suppression efforts can be counterproductive. Such tactics can increase gang cohesion by reinforcing an “us versus them” mentality, and by providing external validation of the gang’s importance:

Gang researchers have noted the potential for gang suppression programs to backfire in the face of group processes that undermine deterrence messages through status enhancement, building cohesion within the gang, and invoking an oppositional culture, all of which lead to increased gang activity (Klein, 1995). A member of the 18th Street gang in Los Angeles makes the same point succinctly: “ ‘We’re not taking it seriously.’…He said that the official attention on the gang—which the police say has up to 20,000 members in Southern California—united members and helped attract recruits. ‘Other gangs are getting . . . into 18th Street,’ he said. ‘It’s growing’ ” (Lopez and Connell, 1997). (Maxson, Hennigan, and Sloane 2003)

Suppression is a popular response to perceived gang problems, despite the challenges outlined here and the lack of evidence of either short- or long-term reductions in crime. Suppression-oriented activities can provide a feeling of efficacy to law enforcement officers frustrated by their inability to rein in crime and violence, and they create the public impression that policy makers are “doing something” about crime.

The public discourse on gang enforcement is full of anecdotal accounts that credit suppression efforts with reducing gang crime. The typical scenario begins with a spike in violence or high-profile crime that triggers a “crackdown” on gang activity. If crime begins to fall, officials credit the suppression effort. If crime does not fall, new enforcement efforts are mounted until it does.

As long as suppression campaigns are launched during crime surges, success is virtually assured. The odds of crime falling back toward normal levels after a sharp increase would be good even if the police took no unusual steps. And as long as officials continue to announce new gang initiatives, it is all but certain that one of them will eventually correspond with a drop in crime.

When suppression efforts are subject to more rigorous evaluation, however, researchers often find that celebrated drops in crime are attributable to larger trends, seasonal fluctuations, or chance. Studies of gang suppression programs in three jurisdictions highlight the limitations of suppression tactics as well as weaknesses in the research literature on suppression.

Gang injunctions

Civil gang injunctions are legal tools that are designed to enhance targeted suppression efforts. The injunctions treat gangs as unincorporated associations whose members can be held responsible by civil courts for creating a public nuisance and enjoined from otherwise lawful behaviors. Enforcement of gang injunctions requires a heavy and sustained police presence, much like other suppression tactics. But injunctions apply only to named (alleged) gang members rather than to all youth who hang out on the street, skip school, or violate city ordinances.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued unsuccessfully to block enforcement of a gang injunction in San Jose, California, in the mid-1990s (Siegel 2003). Individuals named in the original San Jose injunction, or subsequently added to it, were prohibited from “standing, sitting, walking, driving, gathering, or appearing anywhere in public view” with a suspected gang member. Alleged gang members were also prohibited from “approaching vehicles, engaging in conversation or otherwise communicating with the occupants of any vehicle.” Violation of the injunction could result in arrest, a six-month jail sentence, and a fine of $1,000.

Gang membership is often established based on very loose criteria. In the San Jose case, police admitted that “a person could be labeled a gang member if he or she were seen on just one occasion wearing clothing indicative of gang membership, such as a blue jean jacket, cut-off sweat pants, any clothing associated with the Los Angeles Raiders, or white, blue, gray, black, khaki, or any other ‘neutral’ colored item.

The use of gang injunctions is most widespread in Southern California, where, Cheryl Maxson, Karen Hennigan, and David Sloane report, “at least 30 gang injunctions were issued” between 1993 and 2000 (2003). More than two-thirds of the injunctions were issued in Los Angeles County. Maxson and her colleagues conducted a survey of Southern California gang officers to gather information on their use of injunctions. Most considered gang injunctions a “last resort” when “a gang is entrenched in a small area or …gang-related violence is so far out of authorities’ control that it is worth the resources that are required to obtain and maintain an injunction.” One officer described injunctions as a measure that “severely restricts [the] movement of citizens—like martial law.

The restrictions to civil liberties that accompany a gang injunction are justified by a perceived need to save communities from a gang-imposed “state of siege.” But community residents often play little or no role in the process. Two-thirds of Southern California law enforcement respondents told the researchers that they “did not feel that community support was crucial” to the success of an injunction. Roughly half “did not suggest that the community played any role at all in the development of injunctions.

Targeting “hard-core” gang members

The “targeting” of selected gang members by the criminal justice system is a second popular response to gang problems. Proponents argue that focusing attention and resources on “hard-core” gang members will deter them from criminal behavior by increasing the certainty and severity of punishment, or prevent them from committing new crimes in the community through incarceration.

The tactics employed to target gang members can include sentencing enhancements, special prosecution units, and stepped-up surveillance by law enforcement and corrections officials. Some jurisdictions focus on a single targeting tactic, while others set up comprehensive programs. A task force initiative launched in Westminster, California, under the acronym TAR- GET (Tri-Agency Resource Gang Enforcement Team) is a good example of a comprehensive program. The primary components of TARGET were:

  1. Vigorous arrests of identified target subjects;
  2. Effective prosecution and conviction of target subjects;
  3. Vigilant supervision of target subject probationers;
  4. Expanded intelligence and information-sharing between cooperating agencies;
  5. Development and implementation of innovative crime reduction tools.

(Kent and Smith 2001)

Further, research findings indicate that young gang members with limited criminal records may be responsible for a disproportionate share of serious gang violence. A RAND Corporation research team found that “new baldies” —new gang members intent on proving themselves to older members—were committing much of the violence in the Hollenbeck area of Los Angeles (Tita, Riley, and Greenwood 2003). These individuals are difficult to target successfully because much of the damage is done before they are identified by law enforcement.

“Balanced” approaches to gang enforcement

Public officials who recognize the failure of traditional suppression and targeting efforts to reduce gang violence have sought to develop more “balanced” models of gang enforcement. The two best-known models for balanced gang enforcement are Operation Ceasefire, an initiative launched in Boston to reduce youth gun violence, and the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Comprehensive Gang Model, which was developed by researcher Irving Spergel in Chicago.

Both models require law enforcement and other key institutions to change how they work with one another, and how they respond to gang problems. Each aims to:

  • “Balance”suppression and other enforcement activities with efforts to provide services, supports, and opportunities to both gang-involved youth and gang problem communities.
  • Specify the role of law enforcement by delineating which tactics support the overall initiative and which should be avoided because they could be counterproductive.
  • Engage a broader group of stakeholders—including schools, social service providers, and grassroots community groups—in the development of gang policy.
  • Collaborate with researchers on the design, implementation, and evaluation of the initiative.
  • Keep the focus on reducing gang violence rather than mounting a fruitless effort to eliminate gangs or gang crime.

CHAPTER 8 – Real Solutions to Youth Violence: Evidence-Based Practices

First, we must address the personal, family, and community factors that cause young people to choose gangs over more productive alternatives. The more success we have in prevention, the fewer people we’ll have to prosecute for violent activity down the road.

Although there is no clear solution for preventing youth from joining gangs and participating in gang- sanctioned violence, there are evidence-based practices that work with at-risk and delinquent youth, the same youth who often join gangs. Whether these programs work with gang members depends more on the individual youth than on whether he or she belongs to a gang.

Evidence-based practices are practices that have un- dergone rigorous experimental design, have shown significant deterrent effects on violence and serious delinquency, have been replicated, and sustain their effects over a period of time. For example, an intervention like multisystemic therapy (MST) provides intensive services, counseling, and training to young people, their families, and the larger network of people engaged in young people’s lives through schools and the community. MST has been shown to produce positive results for youth and their families, including improved mental health and substance use outcomes, reduced recidivism, and improved educational performance. While the United States surgeon general has named only three “model” programs for treating violent or seriously delinquent youth—multisystemic therapy, functional family therapy, and multidimen- sional treatment foster care (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2001)—policy makers continue to fund and use hundreds of programs that either have not been adequately evaluated or have been evaluated and found to be ineffective or even harmful (Greenwood 2006). Peter Greenwood, former director of the RAND Corporation’s Criminal Justice Program and author of Changing Lives: Delinquency Prevention as Crime-Control Policy, warns that “delays in adopting proven programs will only cause additional victimization of citizens and unnecessarily compromise the future of additional youth” (Greenwood 2006).

Studies have shown that evidence-based practices that work with violent and seriously delinquent youth are more cost effective and produce more benefits than traditional punitive measures. A recent study by the Washington State Institute of Public Policy reported lower recidivism rates and higher monetary benefits to taxpayers and crime victims when these “model” programs were administered instead of detention or unproven alternatives (Aos, Miller, and Drake 2006). Furthermore, a meta-analysis of juvenile intervention practices found that these evidence-based programs were more effective when they were implemented in community settings than when they were used in custodial settings (Lipsey and Wilson 1998). A report by the surgeon general found that “the most effective programs, on average, reduce the rate of subsequent offending by nearly half (46 percent), compared to controls, whereas the least effective programs actually increase the rate of subsequent offending by 18 percent, compared to controls” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2001).

Given the very high cost that citizens appear to associate with any victimization in their community, it would be foolish to put money into a crime-prevention effort that did not maximize the size of the crime-prevention effect.

Public opinion on the issue of rehabilitation versus incarceration for youthful offenders is mixed, but recent polls indicate that people are more willing to pay for rehabilitation programs than for longer prison sentences when the programs are proven to reduce crime. A 2006 poll of 1,500 Pennsylvania residents found that, given the option of using tax dollars for either rehabilitation or incarceration of young people in conflict with the law, the average person was willing to pay 21 percent more of his or her tax money for rehabilitation programs for delinquent youth than for increasing a young person’s length of incarceration (Nagin et al. 2006). Another recent poll of 1,300 U.S. households found that the average household would be willing to spend between $100 and $150 per year “ for crime prevention programs that reduced specific crimes by 10 percent in their communities, with the amount increasing with crime seriousness” (e.g., robberies versus murders) (Cohen et al. 2004).

The finding that taxpayers are willing to pay for prevention and rehabilitation programs is in contrast to the belief popular among politicians that their constituents are demanding more punitive responses to criminal activity. One reason this view persists is that much of society is still unaware of the effectiveness of rehabilitation alternatives for delinquent youth (Greenwood 2006). Once the success of these programs is better publicized, lawmakers and politicians may be more willing to give them a chance, as some have already done. For example, the Pennsylvania Commission to Address Gun Violence recom- mended in its 2005 report that the state continue to implement “evidence-based programs to address violence, which, in turn, impacts gun violence, and encourage the selection of those programs proven to be cost-effective.”

In 1996 the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV) at the University of Colorado at Boulder designed and launched a national violence prevention initiative to identify effective violence prevention programs. The project, called Blueprints for Violence Prevention, has identified 11 prevention and intervention programs that meet a strict scientific standard of program effectiveness and have been effective in reducing adolescent violent crime, aggression, delinquency, and substance abuse. Soon after Blueprints’ initiation, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) became an active supporter of the project and provided funding to sponsor program replications in sites across the United States. When Blueprints was first published in 1998, functional family therapy had been evaluated 14 separate times and has since been replicated at hundreds of sites across the country; multisystemic therapy has been replicated in more than 80 sites and evaluated in four randomized trials; and multidimensional treatment foster care has been evaluated in four trials and now has been replicated dozens of times across the country, with plans for more program sites in the works (Greenwood 2006; TFC Consultants undated).

One of the reasons criminal justice programs are ineffective is the primary focus of law enforcement on immediate solutions to threats to public safety rather than long-term solutions to underlying problems. In contrast, health and human services (HHS) agencies focus on the long-term goals of educating and training individuals to learn how to deal with their own lives with their well-being in mind. Greenwood notes that “the primary capabilities of [HHS] agencies lie in assessing and prioritizing individual risks and needs, and ensuring that those plans are carried out to the extent permitted by available resources.


JUDITH GREENE is a criminal justice policy analyst and a founding partner in Justice Strategies. Over the past decade she has received a Soros Senior Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Institute, served as a research associate for the RAND Corporation, as a senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School, and as director of the State-Centered Program for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. From 1985 to 1993 she was Director of Court Programs at the Vera Institute of Justice.

Ms. Greene’s articles on criminal sentencing issues, police practices, and correctional policy have appeared in numerous publications, including The American Prospect, Corrections Today, Crime and Delinquency, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, The Federal Sentencing Reporter, The Index on Censorship, Judicature, The Justice Systems Journal, Overcrowded Times, Prison Legal News, The Rutgers Law Journal, and The Wake Forest Law Review.

KEVIN PRANIS is a researcher with more than a decade of experience as a justice educator and policy analyst. Be- tween 2003 and 2006, Mr. Pranis was a partner in Justice Strategies, a nonprofit organization that provides research to advocates and policymakers in the fields of criminal justice and immigrant detention. Mr. Pranis has produced educational materials, training manuals, and reports and white papers on topics that include corporate accountability, municipal bond finance, prison privatization, and sentencing policy.

Recent reports authored or co-authored by Mr. Pranis include: “Cost-Saving or Cost-Shifting: The Fiscal Impact of Prison Privatization in Arizona” (Private Corrections Institute, 2005); “Alabama Prison Crisis” ( Justice Strategies, 2005); “Treatment Instead of Prisons: A Roadmap for Sentencing and Correctional Policy Reform in Wisconsin” (Justice Strategies, 2006); “Disparity by Design: How drug-free zone laws impact racial disparity – and fail to protect youth” (Justice Policy Institute, 2006); and “Hard Hit: The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women, 1977-2004” (Women’s Prison Association, 2006).

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