Experts tell lawmakers more police, more prison and more punishment have not stopped gang violence; advocate for science-based approach to public safety
Washington, D.C. –A groundbreaking new report released today by the Justice Policy Institute argues that the billions of dollars spent on traditional gang suppression activities have failed to promote public safety and are often counterproductive. The report is released as lawmakers consider legislation to stiffen penalties for gang-related crime and increase funding for gang suppression.
Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies, written by Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis, undertakes an extensive review of the research literature on gangs to clarify persistent misconceptions and examine the effectiveness of common gang control strategies. According to the report, in cities like Los Angeles where gang activity is most prevalent, more police, more prisons and more punitive measures haven’t stopped the cycle of gang violence. Most surprising are conclusions that gangs are responsible for a relatively small share of crime; gang activity has not grown in the U.S.; whites make up a large – if largely invisible – proportion of gang members; most gang-involved youth quit before reaching adulthood; and heavy-handed suppression tactics can increase gang cohesion while failing to reduce violence.
“The current preoccupation with gangs is a distraction from very real problems of crime and violence that afflict too many communities,” says report co-author Kevin Pranis. “Gangs do not drive crime rates, and aggressive suppression tactics simply make the situation worse by alienating local residents and trapping youth in the criminal justice system. Our review of the research found no evidence that gang enforcement strategies have achieved meaningful reductions in violence, but ample proof that science-based social service interventions can curb delinquency.”
Senator Diane Feinstein (D-California) and Congressman Adam Schiff (D-California 29th) have introduced legislation that would create new federal penalties, establish a national gangs database, and invest more than $700 million in suppression activities, dwarfing the funds provided for prevention.
Gang Wars points to Los Angeles and Chicago as examples of the tragic failure of the most popular suppression approaches to gangs. Despite decades of aggressive gang enforcement – including mass arrests and surveillance, huge gang databases, and increased prison sentences for gang crimes – gang violence continues at unacceptable rates. Despite this failed track record, policymakers nationwide risk following blindly in Los Angeles’ and Chicago’s troubled footsteps.
“Other cities should not adopt Los Angeles’ disastrous ‘war on gangs.’ That approach has failed our communities for generations, and we can’t afford to lose any more youth to violence or prison,” says Luis Rodriguez, a nationally recognized Chicano writer and poet, and author of Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. “We need to invest in jobs, schools, and programs that are proven to reduce recidivism, and reject the policies that prevent young people from leaving gang life behind them.”
New York City, by contrast, did not embrace the aggressive tactics chosen elsewhere when gang crime was on the rise, and has experienced far less gang violence. When gang violence became a serious problem, the city established a system of well-trained street-workers and gang intervention programs, grounded in effective social work practices and independent of law enforcement. Gang experts conclude that the city’s serious problem with street gang violence had largely faded away by the 1980s. Crime is at an historic low in New York.
“This reports shows that the cost of uninformed policy making is simply too high—in dollars and in lives,” says report co-author Judith Greene. “It is unfortunate that this new legislation threatens to continue this legacy of waste.”
In addition to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, the report also examines gang problems and gang enforcement efforts in diverse jurisdictions including Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, St. Louis, and the state of North Carolina.
Based on a review of existing research, Gang Wars draws the following conclusions:
Gang members account for a relatively small share of crime in most jurisdictions. The available evidence indicates that gang members play a relatively small role in the national crime problem. Further, analysis of state-level data shows no consistent relationship between crime rates and reports of gang activity.
The public face of the gang problem is black and Latino, 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 gang members between the ages of 12 and 16. The disparity raises troubling questions about how gang members are identified by law enforcement.
Gang control policies make the process of leaving more difficult by continuing to target former members after their gang affiliation has ended. Most young people who enter gangs will leave the gang within a year. But law enforcement practices can target former gang members long after their active participation in the gang has ended, and may dissuade employers from offering jobs to former gang members or youth who merely look like gang members.
- 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. In Chicago, a cycle of police suppression and incarceration combined with a legacy of segregation to sustain unacceptably high levels of gang violence. Results from the Department of Justice-funded interventions in the three major cities of Dallas, Detroit, and St. Louis show no evidence of a positive impact on target neighborhoods. The picture is little better for gang enforcement strategies that seek to combine suppression with social service interventions: evaluations of Operation Ceasefire and the “Comprehensive Gang Program Model” show that neither was able to replicate the apparent success of the pilot programs, or to achieve a “balance” between law enforcement and community stakeholders.
“We’ve tried to win the war on gangs with law enforcement alone, but we have little to show for it,” says National Black Police Association Executive Director Ronald Hampton. “Rather than engaging in endless battles against gang members, we need to target the problem behavior that hurts communities. We should support the kinds of prevention and proven programs that we already know reduce violence and crime.”
The report advocates that public policy be directed toward reducing youth violence by learning from the lessons of the past and results from recent innovations in juvenile justice policy:
Expand the use of evidenced-based practice to reduce youth crime. Instead of devoting more resources to the already heavily funded and ineffective gang enforcement tactics, policy makers should expand the use of “evidenced-based” interventions that are scientifically proven to reduce juvenile recidivism.
Promote jobs, education, and healthy communities, and lower barriers to the reintegration into society of former gang members. Gang researchers observe that employment and family formation help draw youth away from gangs. Creating positive opportunities through which gang members can leave their past, as opposed to ineffective policies that lock people into gangs or strengthen their attachments, can help to improve public safety.
- Redirect resources from failed gang enforcement efforts to proven public safety strategies. Gang injunctions, gang sweeps, and various ineffective enforcement initiatives reinforce negative images of whole communities and run counter to best practices in youth development. JPI suggests that, instead, localities should end practices that can make the youth violence problem worse, and refocus funds on effective public safety strategies.