photo by Joseph Rodriguez
Yesterday the Washington D.C. based think tank, the Justice Policy Institute issued a 100-plus page report that is getting a lot of attention. The report, called Gang Wars, analyzes which strategies work to combat gang violence, which strategies really don’t work, and which approaches only make the problem far, far worse.
The good news, according to the research, is that there are strategies that have been proven to be effective. The bad news is that Los Angeles, long the gang capital of the world, is the model for how NOT to solve the gang problem. The report points out that, rather than put money and effort into gang prevention and intervention programs, LA county has spent the past several decades trying to arrest and incarcerate its way out of the problem—and has failed spectacularly.
“Anti-gang legislation and police crackdowns are failing so badly that they are strengthening the criminal organizations and making U.S. cities more dangerous…..” writes the AP about the report’s findings. “Mass arrests, stiff prison sentences often served with other gang members and other strategies that focus on law enforcement rather than intervention actually strengthen gang ties and further marginalize angry young men…”
And over at the NY Times’ editorial pages they write:
It shows that police dragnets that criminalize whole communities and land large numbers of nonviolent children in jail don’t reduce gang involvement or gang violence. Law enforcement tools need to be used in a targeted way — and directed at the 10 percent or so of gang members who commit violent crimes. The main emphasis needs to be on proven prevention programs that change children’s behavior by getting them involved in community and school-based programs that essentially keep them out of gangs.
Most of us who’ve been paying attention, have been saying as much for a long, long time, but lawmakers have insisted on pursuing the crack-down/lock-’em-up policy almost exclusively.
“A 25-year anti-gang effort has cost taxpayers billions of dollars but has resulted in six times as many gangs and twice the number of gang members, because Los Angeles has not adequately funded social programs…” says the Washington Post of LA’s history of ill considered gang policy.
Statistics show that youth crime in the United States is at its lowest levels in 30 years and that gangs are responsible for a relatively small share of crime. In addition, according to a national Justice Department survey of police departments, gang membership declined from 850,000 in 1996 to 760,000 in 2004.
But occasional outbursts of violence prompt the media and politicians to seek immediate answers, said the report’s authors, Pranis and Judith Greene.
“And it’s more about politics than it is about serious efforts to do something,” Greene said yesterday. “It’s frustrating to see officials come forward with money for mass arrests, when the money is so sorely needed in programs that are tried and true and can really work.”