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Ganging up against violence.

Criminal street-gangs have spread across the country, creating fear and challenging policymakers to prevent or suppress their activities.

While fires smoldered in riot-torn sections of Los Angeles last year, observers blamed police incompetence, pervasive poverty and resonating racism. Also blamed were juvenile gangs, whose members reportedly were responsible for much of the violence and who have become a feared personification of the urban underclass in this country.

The riots in South-Central L.A. sub-sided, but gang violence goes on. Incidents like the shooting death late last year of a gang rival outside the church memorial service for another youth illustrate how grim life and death can be in gang communities. While Los Angeles continues to have the most disturbing amount of gang crime, cities across the country now report the existence of gangs and accompanying violence.

The number of juvenile gang members and how much crime they commit are subject to debate. Different definitions of gangs and gang crime are used in tracking and research. Record-keeping systems also vary, as does the way the data are interpreted.

Gang experts say that cities and especially police departments go through distinct stages of acknowledgment of and response to gang problems. The first recognizable stage often is "denial"--an unwillingness to tarnish the city's image and cause public fear by acknowledging their existence. On the other hand, where serious crimes have spurred reaction, officials may put many youths and youth crimes under a blanket definition of gangs, comparatively overstating the problem.

A national survey of law enforcement jurisdictions tallied nearly a quarter of a million gang members and more than 46,000 "gang accidents" in 1991. Of the 72 largest cities reporting, almost 20,000 violent offenses were attributed to gangs, including 974 homicides. The study, conducted by West Virginia University for the U.S. Department of Justice, said gang members predominantly are black and Hispanic. The numbers of white and Asian-American gang members were reported as far fewer, but on the rise.

A growing body of knowledge about gangs, including why they exist, who belongs to them, how they operate and how to solve their associated problems, is like the numbers, subject to varying interpretations. There is considerable consensus that gangs are tied to poverty and related social problems. The availability of drugs and especially weapons seems to increase gang members' propensity for crime and violence.

Symptom of Poverty

Gang members overwhelmingly belong to an urban minority underclass. Research suggests that gangs and gang crime increase as economic opportunities decline. Ronald Huff, who directs the Criminal Justice Research Center at Ohio State University, has documented the fact that as manufacturing jobs were lost and unemployment rose in "rust belt" cities, low-income areas became fertile ground for juvenile gangs.

"An economically and socially marginal youth, who has dropped out of school or been expelled and is without job skills, is in deep trouble in Cleveland or Columbus," Huff reports. He and other researchers have noted that where neighborhoods, schools and families have decayed or dispersed, youths look for other means of esteem-building and social identity. Gang association and crime become attractive options where legitimate economic opportunities are lacking and social order is weak. Typical gang activities mirror the need for economic and social identity.

"Gang traditions have been crafted to satisfy precisely those needs which ache most powerfully in the souls of outcast adolescent males," writes Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner in a 1992 report on gang crime and violence. Such traditions include passing a tough physical initiation, strong group identity and camaraderie, and a readiness to defend honor and turf.

Contrary to popular image, most gangs are rather loose associations of crime-prone young men forming a "surrogate family," according to Huff. They may wear colors and other insignia of Crips or Bloods, but they tend to be small, autonomous cliques. In Los Angeles, Reiner says, cliques average around four or five members--"roughly a car-load."

Gang members spend a good deal of their time engaging in exaggerated versions of typical adolescent behavior, according to Huff, who is interviewing gang members in six cities for the National Institute of Justice. Rebelling against authority, listening to loud music, hanging out and drinking alcohol or getting high are typical gang activities. Being a good, aggressive fighter also is an important reputation-builder for young gang members. "Fighting and partying" are the main occupations of gang members, says the Los Angeles district attorney.

It is no misconception, however, that gang members commit many and often serious crimes. Experts distinguish members' drift into serious crime according to several gang types--distinctions that have policy implications as well.

"Predatory gangs," as identified by researcher Huff, commit the kinds of violent street crimes often associated with gangs--muggings, carjacking, rape and murder. These gang members often use drugs like crack cocaine, which contribute to violent, assaultive behavior. They also are likely to sell drugs, which pay for the sophisticated weapons they carry. Gang members often are readily available street dealers for organized cocaine cartels. Huff notes that lines start to blur between gangs and organized crime depending on the extent of involvement in organized drug trade. For some gang members, he says, "Color no longer is red or blue, but green."

Susan Pennell, who is directing a study of drug-involved gang members for the San Diego Association of Governments, says that while about three-quarters of gang members there sell drugs as a regular means of making money, only about one-third have sold drugs outside the county, a sign of higher-level involvement in the drug trade. It is not uncommon for older gang members to graduate into such drug-related criminality, researchers say. This trend appears to be accelerated by a weak economy and scarcity of legitimate jobs for young minority men.

"Instrumental gangs" tend to commit property crimes for money. Many members use drugs, including crack, and some sell drugs but not as an organized gang activity.

Finally, what Huff calls "hedonistic gangs" focus primarily on hanging out and getting high. Members commit minor property crimes, but not necessarily as a gang activity. Such gangs are not routinely involved in violent crime.

Almost any gang association carries with it the need for excitement and protection; therefore the propensity for violence is ever-present, says Pennell. "It should not surprise us that a group of young men who have drugs and guns and nothing to do would eventually wander into violent crime," she says.

Gang-related homicides usually are not random shootings or drug disputes, but rather the escalation of fights over turf, status or revenge, according to Reiner's analysis for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Drive-by shootings typically are committed by small sets of gang members, not entire gangs, and often are part of a chain reaction of vengeful events. Reiner says that one long-time gang battle among Crip factions in Los Angeles, to which he attributes two dozen deaths, started over a junior-high romance.

Pennell blames this kind of "ad lib violent crime" on the feeling of hopelessness that comes out of poverty paired with the availability of weapons. Interviews with some 200 gang members in San Diego reveal the same low regard for human life that other gang research has spoken of, Pennell says. "Many of these kids don't think they'll be alive at 25," she says. "And they accept that."

Gang Policy and Legislation

State legislation aimed at the gang problem has increased in recent years as gangs show up in cities and towns far from urban centers like Los Angeles and Chicago. Experts say that policy to deal with gangs needs to be centralized and comprehensive, pulling together all the systems involved and balancing the need for enforcement with prevention.

"A criminal justice response is very important, but by itself is not very effective," says Winifred Reed, who manages gang research projects for the National Institute of Justice. Prevention, intervention and suppression all are necessary for controlling the impact of gangs, Reed says.

Huff recommends a two-pronged approach: 1) aggressive enforcement against hard-core "predatory" gang members; and 2) prevention directed at marginal and would-be gang members. Examples of both approaches are found in state laws.

Enforcement legislation in states like California, Nevada, Florida, Georgia and Illinois enhances penalties for crimes carried out in participation with or at the direction of gangs. The California "Street Terrorism Enforcement Act" of 1988, which other states have since emulated in name and spirit, makes it illegal to participate in a criminal street gang. It provides for an extra two or three years' imprisonment at the court's discretion for felonies committed in association with a gang. If the felony is punishable by life imprisonment, a minimum of 15 years must be served before parole is granted. Misdemeanor offenses committed in association with gangs also carry mandatory jail time.

Florida's Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act also upgrades felonies or violent misdemeanors committed as street gang activity. Illinois' "gang transfer" law permits adult criminal prosecution of forcible felonies that are gang-related.

Some state laws, including a 1992 Oklahoma enactment, criminalize gang recruitment. Other state laws seek to address certain gang activities or equipment--most notably weapons. California law provides for confiscation of firearms or dangerous weapons that are owned or possessed by members of criminal street gangs for the purpose of committing crimes. Virginia state law allows localities to prohibit juveniles from possessing loaded firearms except in certain situations. Virginia also suspends driving privileges of delinquent youth found by a court to have unlawfully used or possessed a handgun.

Gang fondness for graffiti is addressed mostly at the local level. Some cities have adopted measures to restrict juvenile access to spray paint, and require perpetrators to restore or replace vandalized property. Huff says such graffiti laws give young gang members the right no-tolerance message and may keep them from taking gang activity to the next, more dangerous level. Many state vandalism statutes also cover graffiti.

Other gang-related laws include a Colorado measure that defines the notion of "drive-by crime." At least five states passed laws in 1992 having to do with throwing objects from roadways, bridges or overpasses, said to be a gang activity or ritual.

Increasingly, states also are trying to prevent gangs. In addition to its enforcement act, Florida created gang prevention councils in 1990 whereby judicial circuits develop plans to reduce gang activity and other juvenile arrests. In 1991, Washington enacted a "Youth Gang Reduction Act" to establish gang prevention and intervention programs for elementary and secondary age youth through cooperation of schools, local groups and government.

A 1991 Hawaii law has what some experts say is the best balance of juvenile gang enforcement and prevention. The Hawaii act allocated $3.2 million to coordinate law enforcement, public awareness, community and school-based intervention and prevention, and gang research and evaluation. A statewide law enforcement task force on youth gangs, an information system and clearinghouse on gangs, prosecution efforts that focus on gang members on the career-criminal track, school-based education intervention programs, and parks and recreation programs have been well worth the money, according to the act's sponsor. Representative Annelle Amaral of Honolulu.

Hard-core criminal gang members are being targeted for prosecution while education and prevention with younger kids has interrupted the growth of gangs in Hawaii, Amaral says. Continued funding of $1.8 million was approved in 1992 as part of the executive budget.

An evaluation of Hawaii's gang act for the Legislature in 1992 said that the most notable success has been better communication among law enforcement personnel in various counties and collaboration of law enforcement with social service and youth agency workers. Gang prevention curricula and truancy prevention programs show promising effects on youths' attitudes and behavior, and better youth service and recreation programs have increased participation by typically hard-to-recruit, at-risk youngsters, according to the report. The Gang Reporting Evaluation and Tracking (GREAT) computerized system, said by the evaluation team to be too complex and cumbersome, is being redesigned to make it more practical and usable.

California also followed up on its street terrorism act with a law that uses asset forfeiture funds for a Gang Risk Intervention Pilot (GRIP) program. The program includes individual and family counseling, cultural and recreational programs, job training and other activities to get at-risk kids interested in something other than drugs and gangs, according to Assemblyman Richard Katz, who represents the San Fernando Valley.

Future funding for 14 GRIP programs operating in L.A. County is uncertain, however. A governor's veto removed GRIP funds from last year's budget. The current asset forfeiture law used to fund the programs is due to sunset in 1994 with a number of new bids for forfeiture funds likely to be heard, according to California Assembly staff.

Katz has introduced a bill this year to keep forfeiture funds flowing into the types of gang-prevention programs the pilot project showed to be most effective. Efforts to rebuild state economies and revitalize cities cannot overlook crime prevention, Katz says. There were more than 800 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles last year, a city heavily affected by the loss of 800,000 jobs in the state since 1990.

States are finding other specialized means for funding gang prevention efforts. A "gangbuster bill" proposed by the Wisconsin Senate's assistant majority leader, Chuck Chvala, would create surcharges on weapon violations. These would fund police and gang prevention programs, including jobs programs that offer youths an incentive to get out of gangs, Chvala says. The Wisconsin bill also creates new penalties for drive-by shootings and gang recruitment, and enhanced penalties for gang-related crime.

Cities like Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay are reporting gang problems that were unheard of 10 years ago, Chvala says. Loss of manufacturing jobs in the area has diminished economic opportunity for many of the state's young people. "We cannot eliminate gangs unless we address the reasons they exist--hopelessness, joblessness and economic despair," he explains.

Huff suggests that states can get the most benefit for their prevention dollars by pinpointing areas with the most at-risk youth. He says a zip-code analysis identifying areas with the most gang-associated crime, public assistance, juvenile incarceration and mental health commitments will help states begin to prevent gang crime involvement.

The spread of gang crime to comparatively affluent suburbs and towns is a disturbing trend. Pennell says such "acculturation" occurs when gang association is made appealing even to youths who have average or better economic opportunity.

"Gangs are chic," Huff says. "Madison Avenue is hip to this," he explains, noting that billboards and other advertisements for cigarettes and alcohol have sprung up depicting gang gear or insignia. Los Angeles District Attorney Reiner agrees that gang music, language and clothing have made a big impact on popular youth culture, even though the stark reality of gang life is anything but glamorous.

Violent TV images help to anesthetize most people to crime and violence that increasingly has a youthful face. The FBI reported recently that the violent crime rate for juveniles reached a new high in 1990 with increases evident in all geographic regions of the country. The arrest rate of black youths for violent crimes was especially alarming. Certainly, the prevalence of juvenile gangs is not a phenomenon separate from crime and violence in general.

Gangs basically are made up of dangerous, alienated young men, who, individually, are likely to commit crimes. "After all," Reiner says, "if gangs disappeared tomorrow, there is no reason to believe their members would join the Boy Scouts."

Coming to a Community Near You

Gangs are "coming to a community near you," warns an expert who says gangs are moving into communities less prepared to deal with them. This prediction, and recommendations for fighting gangs on all fronts, are compiled in The Gang Intervention Handbook, edited by Ronald Huff and Arnold P. Goldstein. The handbook offers these and other intervention and prevention strategies:

What Schools Can Do

Schools should begin with a "gang assessment" that looks at factors like graffiti, drugs, weapons and racial conflict to determine how much of a gang problem they have. From that starting point, other school tactics include:

* Develop a gang prevention and gang awareness curriculum, and implement it in the early grades. Focus on nonviolence, conflict resolution and peer mediation. Present the consequences of gang involvement. In Orange County, Calif., for example, anti-drug and anti-gang information has been added to regular course work for third, fifth and seventh grades.

* If gang problems are serious, consider dress codes that forbid gang apparel or paraphernalia. This will protect students who aren't in gangs as well as help curb flagrant gang association. Such a policy has to be carefully crafted to strike the right balance between students' right to free expression and the school's responsibility to provide a safe environment.

* Graffiti tells a story of what is happening with gangs. School administrators should read and understand graffiti, and remove it.

What Communities Can Do

Researchers believe that family factors strongly influence aggressive behavior that can lead to gang involvement. Social service agencies and community groups can:

* Provide services and support to address family stress, including unemployment, marital conflict, divorce and single parenting. Substance abuse problems require specialized, direct intervention. Family intervention also can include parenting classes. In Hawaii, police and schools jointly offer parent classes about gang activity and for diversion.

Many experts believe that when young people have "nothing to do" they are more apt to become involved in a gang. Examples of programs that help fill the void include:

* YouthBuild in San Francisco and elsewhere has at-risk youth doing neighborhood construction and renovation. Funded by state, local and private money, young people learn job skills and also receive counseling and job-readiness training. Involved adults act as mentors.

* GANG PEACE/FIRST Inc. in Boston uses mostly volunteers to provide youths with day and evening tutoring, job assistance, counseling and recreational activities.

* Project Match in Chicago, supported in part by state social services, uses one-on-one case management to teach self-sufficiency to kids who have seen little except joblessness and welfare.

What Police, Prosecution Can Do

Huff recommends that police departments establish central gang-control units to improve intelligence-sharing and reduce turf problems. A database on gangs and gang members, such as those in Los Angeles and Broward County, Fla., also aids enforcement efforts. In states with legislation defining criminal street gangs and setting penalties for gang-associated crime, a database helps in prosecution by tracking and documenting gang involvement.

An Operation Safe Streets program of the Los Angeles County sheriff's department helped tie together investigation and prosecution of gang crime. Gang prosecutions are among the toughest, often combining elements of career criminals, crimes committed by groups and fearful witnesses. Specific policy on gangs and specialized gang prosecution--especially "vertical prosecution" where the same prosecutor or team handles a case from start to finish--can improve success with these cases.

Effective gang prevention and suppression requires collective action, experts say. It's important to recognize that gangs are not just a law enforcement problem and for schools, social services, police, prosecutors, parents and others to plan and respond as a team.

The Gang Intervention Handbook is published by Research Press, Champaign, Ill., (217) 352-3273.

Donna Hunzeker is NCSL's criminal justice expert.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Title Annotation:The Problems of Poverty; US criminal street gangs
Author:Hunzeker, Donna
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:3195
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