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The parole supervision of security threat groups: a collaborative response.

W.B. was back in business, and business was pretty good. The gang was his life, and this was his corner. Recently released from state prison, he was back on the street every night, wearing his colors for all to see. The time he spent in prison for aggravated assault was just a minor setback and an inconvenience, just like parole. Shortly after his release, he returned to dealing cocaine and did not give parole a second thought. However, W.B. was forced to think about his parole responsibility when he was arrested for possession of 20 vials of crack. His arrest was part of the New Jersey State Parole Board's program, Gang Reduction Aggressive Supervision Parole (GRASP) initiative, which targets violent gang members and provides them with specialized intensive supervision.


In response to the escalating threat posed by gang-related crime in the 1990s, the New Jersey law enforcement community instituted numerous multi-agency anti-gang task forces to investigate, arrest and prosecute street gangs. The targeting of criminal gang activity resulted in an increasing number of gang members being sent to New Jersey prisons. One dilemma this created was what to do with gang members when they were released from prison. The New Jersey Division of Parole implemented GRASP in 2002 to manage the growing population of street gang members. This article will review literature on successful strategies of gang intervention, review GRASP and Security Threat Group concepts and provide policy implications.


The Gang Problem

The problem of what to do with paroled gang members is not a new one, but it has been exacerbated in recent years because of the significant increase in numbers. The criminal justice system is not immune to the influences of politics. For example, a conservative political stance has placed focus on social order and has resulted in greater pressures for intensive surveillance of parolees. This has resulted in increased use of intensive supervision parole and probation. It has also led to the elimination of parole boards in some states in attempts to decrease individual discretion and increase legislative mandate. As a result, the justice system finds itself continually challenged to respond immediately and to produce quick results. However, while there is a significant amount of gang research, (1, 2, 3) the research has not provided concrete scientific findings of "what works." (4, 5)

The lack of scientific knowledge of what works is due to the implementation of numerous gang intervention policies lacking proper problem analysis or scientific evaluation. (6) To understand what works in intervention policies, one must understand the nature of the gang problem. First, national trends show an increase in the number of gangs. The National Youth Gang Survey found that while the overall number of gangs active in the United States in 2000 (24,500) declined five percent from 1999, cities with a population more than 25,000 saw a one percent increase. (7) Furthermore, cities with populations larger than 100,000 reported either increased or stable gang problems but showed an increase in gang-related homicides in 2001. (8) By 2002, more than 2,300 cities had active youth gangs. (9) Many jurisdictions report a cause-effect relationship between recently released gang members and an increase in violent crime and drug trafficking. (10) This is an important finding for formulating successful intervention policies.

A second consideration to successful implementation of intervention policies is the changing dynamic of gangs during the past years. The gang problem no longer is a youth problem because the upper age limit has risen. In addition, diversity of gang membership is increasing in ethnicity, race and gender representation. (11)

A third, and equally important, consideration is the organizational structure of the gang. (12) The organization of a gang, tightly vs. loosely structured, may be affected by a specific gang intervention strategy. Tightly structured gangs have a distinct hierarchy, and the actions of members can be controlled and determined by the power structure. Loosely structured gangs, on the other hand, do not have this level of control over members. The important thing to remember is that the structure determines the intervention strategy, and when structure is ignored, the strategy can do more harm than good. Los Angeles' Group Guidance Project created strong cohesion to loosely structured gangs, providing greater opportunities by bringing the gang members together and providing counseling, tutoring and other activities. Researchers warn that intervention strategies can backfire, creating solidarity by creating a common enemy. A loosely structured gang facing greater surveillance may be forced to turn to leaders in order to create strategies that minimize the chances of arrest. Thus, successful gang interventions must first involve rigorous problem analysis and be followed by scientific evaluation. (13)

New Jersey's Gang Problem

Two recent studies released by the New Jersey State Police in 2001 and 2004 revealed that law enforcement agencies perceived an increased gang problem in the state. Furthermore, 33 percent of the responding law enforcement agencies reported gang activity for each year. The data also revealed an increased complexity to gang structures and activities in relation to age, gender, ethnicity and firearms. Following national patterns, age distribution patterns of gang members in New Jersey reveal the gang problem is not limited to youths. In 2001, youths between 15 and 17 years of age represented 28 percent of all reported gang members, while young adults between 18 and 24 represented a substantially higher portion, 43 percent. In 2004, the age range of most gang members (37 percent) was between 18 and 24, with the 15 to 17 age range following at 29 percent. (14) Considering the gender makeup of gangs in New Jersey, the study found that for every nine male gang members, there was one female gang member. In comparison, in the 2001 study, data did not allow for an accurate determination of gender composition. While research has revealed that most gang criminal activity involves a great deal of minor offenses, (15) gangs also engage in very violent offenses. Following national patterns, gang-related homicides remain a problem, with 17 percent of homicides in New Jersey involving gang members in both the 2001 and 2004 studies. (16)

Gang Intervention Strategies in New Jersey

Gang intervention strategies depend on the consideration of many factors. These factors include, but are not limited to, age of gang members, group- vs. individual-level intervention and timing of intervention during the criminal justice process.

The Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act of 2005 (S.155, still in committee January 2006), also known as the "Gangbusters Bill," increases criminal justice resources for fighting the gang problem, while gang loitering laws and civil injunctions have been adopted that allow increased social control of known gangs members. (17) However, these suppression-based measures, combined with the increased use of early release and re-entry initiatives, have resulted in more offenders than ever being released back into society. Included in this group are many active gang members. This large return of gang members to society has created the necessity for the implementation of a gang intervention strategy at the community corrections level.

Recent gang intervention research recommends a cooperative approach among police, parole, corrections and various community groups to combat gang violence. (18) The traditional suppression-based tactics used by police departments in the past may have the short-term gain of increased criminal prosecutions but may cause gang members to close ranks and, therefore, hinder attempts at further gang intelligence gathering. (19) Information sharing and intelligence gathering have become even more critical issues in recent years with the increased emphasis on homeland security and increased evidence of possible links between criminal street gangs and domestic terrorist activities.

Gang Reduction Aggressive Supervision Parole

The New Jersey State Parole Board was faced with the challenge of developing a strategy to manage the burgeoning gang population that was being processed through the state's correctional system. It also had to deal with the unique problems posed by this influx to the system of high-profile, high-risk cases. Its response was the GRASP program. Established in 2002, the program places street gang members on intensive parole caseloads that are supervised by an officer specially trained in street gang supervision techniques. In addition to the supervision component of GRASP, a second developmental goal of the program was to establish and expand an intelligence-gathering and information partnership with other agencies involved in the various stages of community law enforcement.

The initial pilot project was developed as a short-term task force to work in conjunction with the New Jersey Department of Corrections' Special Investigations Unit and the New Jersey State Police Street Gang Bureau. It was designed to target the gang populations of Camden, Newark and Irvington. The GRASP program paid almost immediate dividends when two gang-related shooting investigations were solved in the first week of operation as the result of information provided by GRASP officers. After several high-profile sweeps resulted in the arrests of numerous gang members, both parolees and nonparolees, the GRASP program was implemented statewide in May 2003. The original developmental goals were quickly met, and the scope of the GRASP program was expanded to include multi-agency gang interdiction initiatives, surveillance and criminal investigations.

As the focus of the law enforcement community's gang strategy widens to include homeland security concerns, GRASP has forged new partnerships with the New Jersey Office of Counter-Terrorism and several county gang task forces. While the initial results have been promising, it must be stressed that the implementation of these new programs must be followed with a scientific evaluation of their effectiveness, especially in understanding their long-term impact on the gang problem in New Jersey.

Security Threat Groups

The New Jersey Division of Parole supervises gang members who have been identified by the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) as members of a Security Threat Group (STG). STG is a nationally recognized designation for people identified as members of a specified gang. The origins of gang identification and supervision in New Jersey began in 1994 with the adoption by the New Jersey DOC of the STG designation. In New Jersey, such identification means that they are to be considered a threat to the safety and security of the state's correctional facilities. Before the implementation of the STG designation, correctional institutions in New Jersey were becoming fertile recruiting centers and training grounds for criminal street gangs. Many offenders who had entered prison with no identified affiliation were leaving as full-fledged gang members. Upon parole release, some of these gang members renounced their affiliation, stating that they joined a gang while incarcerated as a matter of survival. However, there is no definitive way of determining if these renouncements were legitimate or just a ploy to hide their continued allegiance. The increased movement toward secrecy by incarcerated gang members creates a significant challenge for corrections and parole authorities and consequently for researchers studying the prison gang phenomenon. As gangs became increasingly more sophisticated, gang members in prison began hiding or disguising their affiliation in order to avoid the STG designation and its accompanying sanctions. As a result, accurate data about the extent of gang activity in the New Jersey correctional and parole systems will become increasingly more difficult to maintain.

The New Jersey DOC STG policy is similar in content and structure to those adopted by other states attempting to deal with the growing threat presented by prison gangs. All states that use the designation STG define it as an identifiable group of people possessing common characteristics who join together for a common purpose, primarily criminal in nature. This purpose poses a significant threat to the security of the correctional institution. (20)

The criteria for assignment of this designation may vary from state to state, depending on the specific gangs found in each respective correctional system. However, the operational concept is the same. Large gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, NETA and Latin Kings have chapters in virtually every state, so their designation as STG is a common element in most state correctional systems. (21) Also present in most states are motorcycle gangs, skinheads and white supremacy groups. However, because of the changing racial composition of most U.S. prison systems in the past 25 years, the latter gangs' institutional membership currently is much smaller than that of the Bloods, Crips, NETA or Latin Kings (groups that had until recently recruited almost exclusively from minority inmates). This factor is changing as gangs are constantly evolving, diversifying and becoming increasingly multi-racial in composition. W.B., the case study discussed in the introduction, is an example of the increasing ethnic diversity of criminal street gangs. He is white and was recruited by the Bloods while incarcerated.

As of Sept. 1, 2005, there are seven STGs recognized by the New Jersey Department of Corrections and supervised by state parole in the GRASP program. These include the Bloods, Crips, NETA, Five-Percenters, Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, Prison Brotherhood of Bikers and the East Coast Aryan Brotherhood. These seven groups were identified as the most prevalent gang members in the state's correctional system and, more important, those who pose the most significant threat to the security of the institutions. It is from these identified groups that the New Jersey parole gang population is drawn. As of August 2004, the DOC had identified more than 8,000 gang members in New Jersey. (22) A great many of these have subsequently come under the supervision of GRASP parole officers.


Parole officers are in a unique position in the criminal justice community because they have to attempt to build a trust and rapport with the people they supervise while still acting in their primary capacity as law enforcement officers. GRASP officers constantly must weigh these two conflicting job responsibilities and do their best to guide the paroled gang member down the right path toward a productive lifestyle. They must encourage them to use counseling, intervention, diversion and community outreach while balancing the needs of the parolee against the larger need for protection of the community. This is a daunting task under normal circumstances that is made even more difficult when dealing with gang members.

In our post-9/11 society, the emphasis on the law enforcement community sharing information and intelligence gathering has increased exponentially. This increased emphasis has reached into the community corrections field, with particular focus on the post incarceration supervision of street gang members. The need for collaborative partnerships with other law enforcement agencies would appear to be mutually beneficial.

It should be noted that there has not been rigorous scientific evaluation of GRASP, and it is therefore recommended that it be implemented to determine its effectiveness. Program evaluations are necessary for law enforcement officials to know what works and what does not work. If parole officials have this evaluative information at their fingertips, current strategies can be improved and the desired goal of decreased gang activity can be reached.


(1) Cloward, Richard A. and Lloyd E. Ohlin. 1960. Delinquency and opportunity: A theory of delinquent gangs. New York: Free Press.

(2) Klein, Malcolm W. 1995. The American street gang. New York: Oxford University Press.

(3) Decker, Scott H. 2001. From the streets to the prison: Understanding and responding to gangs. Indianapolis: In. National Major Gang Task Force.

(4) Papachristos, Andrew. 2005. Interpreting inkblots: Deciphering and doing something about modern street gangs. Criminology & Public Policy, 4: 643-652.

(5) Spergel. I. 1994. Gang suppression and response: Problem and response. OJJDP Research Summary 1994. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

(6) McGloin, Jean Marie. 2005. Policy and intervention considerations of a network analysis of street gangs. Criminology & Public Policy, 4: 607-636.

(7) Egely, Arien. 2002. National youth gang survey trends from 1996-2000. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

(8) Egely, Arien and Aline K. Major. 2003. Highlights of the 2001 National Youth Gang Survey. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

(9) Egely, Arien and Aline K. Major. 2004. Highlights of the 2002 National Youth Gang Survey. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

(10) Egely, Arien and Aline K. Major. 2003.

(11) Klein, Malcolm W. 1995.

(12) McGloin, Jean Marie. 2005.

(13) Klein, Malcolm W. 1995.

(14) New Jersey State Police. 2005. Gangs in New Jersey: Municipal law enforcement response to the 2004 and 2001 NJSP gang surveys. Retrieved Oct. 19, 2005,

(15) Klein, Malcolm W. 1995.

(16) New Jersey State Police. 2005.

(17) Papachristos, Andrew. 2005.

(18) Spergel, I. 1994.

(19) Klein, Malcolm W. 1995.

(20) Butler, Richard. 2005. The relationship between the specialized training of parole officers and the revocation rates of paroled gang members in New Jersey. Unpublished Thesis.

(21) Butler, Richard. 2005.

(22) Johnson, Melissa. 2004. Using prison gang intelligence from the inside out. Crime Mapping News.

Capt. Richard Butler is a regional supervisor for the New Jersey Division of Parole and supervises the Street Gang and Fugitive Recovery units. Venessa Garcia, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Kean University in Union, N.J.
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Title Annotation:CT FEATURE
Author:Butler, Richard; Garcia, Venessa
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1U2NJ
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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