Corrections must lead the fight against youth gangs: the goal of the juvenile justice system should be to turn youthful offenders into responsible, law-abiding, productive citizens and to diminish the influence of gangs.Gangs, and particularly youth gangs, have become a national epidemic. Our youths have gone from swiping hubcaps and fist fighting to selling drugs and drive-by shootings. Law enforcement and corrections officials need to understand the crises, and especially the influence of prison gangs over youth gangs, in order to strategically direct resources to reduce the influence of gangs.
The proliferation of gang violence in our communities, in many cases, can be traced to the most secure housing units in our correctional facilities. These units house the most dangerous and influential inmates and, therefore, become gang headquarters. Through an elaborate communication system, gang leaders manage to direct violence throughout our prisons and into our communities. Street gang members--many of them youths--kill, rob, steal, extort and sell drugs at the direction of and for the benefit of the prison gang leaders.
The juvenile justice system is continually prompted to "fix" the problem of youth gangs and violence. However, it is the fix that ignites the age-old debate of rehabilitation vs. punishment. On the one hand we want to help at-risk kids, and on the other we are fed up with the violence and want to try teens as adults and incarcerate them for longer periods of time. The problem is complex and it raises many questions. Do we fear our own children? How are at-risk children treated in this country? What about the disintegration of the family unit? How effective is the foster care delivery system? Do we treat juvenile offenders as adults? Do we have clear-cut policies or are we at the whim of the knee-jerk reactions of our elected officials?
The call for more juvenile prisons, to make juvenile criminal records public and to punish juveniles as adults is alive and well today. The other side of the debate believes incarcerating juveniles will not solve the problem. It calls for more intervention and prevention programs to keep high-risk youths in school, out of trouble and out of the system.
The one thing we do know from our experience is the more young people we can successfully divert from the system the better. Once juveniles enter, it is very difficult for them to successfully get out and beat the system's stigma. Juvenile practitioners know these young gang members were not born this way. Deep down they are just children who want the same things we all wanted: love, attention, acceptance, security and a sense of belonging. But, in too many cases, what we have in front of us are violent, angry, abused, impulsive, explosive people full of self-hatred. And, unfortunately, they take that hatred out on themselves and the public.
Talking with gang members of all ages it becomes clear the reasons they joined gangs were personal. They joined for a sense of belonging, a sense of being a part of something. The lure of money, drugs, security and excitement can all be powerful contributing factors. And all too often these young gang members aspire to belong to a prison gang, and they are more than willing to commit acts of violence to be recognized and accepted.
The root causes of youth crime are complex. Stopping the violence will not be easy, and there are no simple solutions. We must implement programs that stress personal responsibility and accountability. We must hold offenders accountable, punish with a purpose, provide rehabilitation for those who want it, increase support for victims and public safety, and treat the entire family not just the offender.
The goal of the juvenile justice system should be to turn youthful offenders into responsible, law-abiding, productive citizens and to diminish the influence of gangs. To accomplish this we need a multidisciplinary approach to the youth gang problem that includes intervention, prevention and suppression. The former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales reportedly said "To have enduring success against gangs we must address the personal, family and community factors that cause young people to choose gangs. The more successful we have in this area the fewer people will have to be prosecuted for violent activity."
Gangs have a chokehold on our youth. This is not just a police problem or a corrections problem. This is a societal problem. We as corrections professionals must lead the way.
National Gang Intelligence Center