May 8, 2006

May 8, 2006 | Commentary on Crime

Thwarting Gangs

Warn the thugs that crimes will provoke a fast, intense response

Youth gangs are not a new problem in America. They date to the end of the Revolutionary War, when groups of criminals appeared in New York and Philadelphia. But in recent years, some gangs have become truly national in their presence.

As of 2002, the national Youth Gang Survey estimated total gang membership in America at 730,000. And it's not just the homegrown Crips, Bloods and Latin Kings.

The spread of gangs across state and national boundaries means the federal government must take the lead in securing the nation's borders (illegal immigrants form a vital recruiting pool for gangs) and help coordinate information-sharing among state and local officials. But since state and local officials are on the front lines, they are best suited to develop policies to suppress gang crime and prevent recruiting.

Programs that focus on individuals to prevent gang membership, and focus on intense enforcement and active information-sharing among law enforcement agencies, can reduce gang membership and crime.

Smart policing can reduce gang crime without additional laws. In Boston, increasing community frustration with gang violence led to Operation Ceasefire, a comprehensive effort by multiple law enforcement agencies to turn the tide against gang crime.

The goal of Operation Ceasefire is to reduce crime by clamping down on offenders at each available opportunity. Gang members, after all, commit a large number of crimes, such as using drugs in public and violating probation. This gives police ample opportunity to pull every lever to make arrests when illegal behavior is detected.

Officers started by warning gang members that continued crime would provoke an immediate, intense response. They followed through with aggressive pursuit, arrest and conviction of gang members. The initiative has helped bring about a 63 percent decrease in youth homicides and a 25 percent drop in gun assaults -- all without adding one additional law to the books.

Elsewhere, law enforcement officials have turned to "hot spots" policing, in which they use crime-mapping technology to track the times and places in communities where gang violence is most likely to occur.

Stopping gang crime isn't easy, but it may be even tougher to stop youths from joining gangs in the first place. Some federal programs popular with Congress haven't helped: The Gang Resistance Education and Training program, for instance, which sends uniformed police into middle-school classrooms to warn students to avoid gang activity, has not been shown to reduce gang membership, drug use or delinquency.

Studies show that prevention should focus on the individual and on the factors related to family, school and peers that affect youths' decision to join gangs. Multisystemic therapy, a highly intensive and tailored counseling program aimed at individuals, has shown promise in reducing the delinquency of youth displaying serious antisocial behavior.

The therapy recognizes that antisocial behavior is influenced by the interplay of family relationships, peer associations and school performance. Counselors use in-home visits to work with parents to improve parental discipline, enhance family relationships, increase youth interactions with upstanding peers and improve school performance.

The stakes remain high. Youths who join gangs are far more likely to sell and use drugs and commit property crimes than those who don't, according to a study led by University of Illinois at Chicago professor Rachel A. Gordon.

And this always will be a tough group to reach, populated as it is by mostly poor, undereducated young people -- many of whom speak little English and see the American dream as beyond reach.

David Muhlhausen is a senior research analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
Center for Data Analysis

First appeared in PE.com