Teen Gangs: Integrated Interventions Work Best

By Mahoney, Diana | Clinical Psychiatry News, October 2010 | Go to article overview
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Teen Gangs: Integrated Interventions Work Best


Mahoney, Diana, Clinical Psychiatry News


Youth violence and gang involvement account for one of the most pressing public health and safety issues facing our country, and unless intervention efforts are redirected to include preventive rather than punitive strategies, the danger is not likely to diminish, Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree told a House of Representatives panel.

In a 2008 hearing on gang violence titled, "What's Effective? What's Not?," Mr. Ogletree, who is also the founding director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice in Boston, testified before the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security that "public dollars spent on education and prevention are far more effective in stemming violence and discouraging gang affiliation than broadening prosecutorial powers or stiffening criminal penalties for young people accused of gang-related crimes."

Not only do the "get tough" approaches that focus on prosecution and incarceration show little evidence of deterring gang activity, "tactics focused on increasing prosecutions, expanding the definition of gang membership, and lengthening prison sentences will likely strengthen, not reduce, gang affiliations by isolating children and teenagers with antisocial peers and by removing them from healthier social environments and opportunities to participate in more positive outlets."

National statistics on youth gang activity back this up. Despite the increase in "anti-gang" legislation at the state and federal level over the past decade, the prevalence rates of youth gang activity remain significantly elevated, compared with recorded lows in the early 2000s, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice 2008 National Youth Gang Survey.

In 2008, an estimated 32.4% of all cities, suburban areas, towns, and rural counties experienced gang problems, which is a 15% increase from 2002. Similarly, the approximate number of gangs and gang members estimated to be active in the United States increased by 28% and 6%, respectively from 2002 to 2008.

Furthermore, more than one-quarter of the nation's public school students attend schools where gangs are present, according to the results of a national teen survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York (CLINICAL PSYCHIATRY NEWS, September 2010, p. 1). The survey shows that gang activity is an important marker of drug activity. Nearly 60% of teens in schools with gangs--almost twice as many as in schools without gang activity--reported that drugs were used, kept, or sold on school grounds.

The increasing youth gang presence has coincided with an increase in gang-related criminal activity. According to Justice Department statistics, state, local, and federal law enforcement in 2004-2008 reported a 13% increase in gang activity.

In a recently published study investigating the psychological processes associated with gang membership, investigators observed that core and peripheral gang members committed more minor and violent offenses, were more antiauthority, and were more delinquent than were non--gang members overall (Aggr. Behav. 2010 Aug. 17 [doi:10.1002/ab.20360]).

Additionally, the findings of several studies have demonstrated that gang members are responsible for a large proportion of all violent offenses committed during the adolescent years, although this is difficult to confirm because of the "widespread limitations of officially recorded data on gang crime," according to the U.S. Department of Justice National Gang Center.

Without question, the best interest of the public would be served by preventing youth gang involvement, but doing so cannot be achieved through the juvenile justice system alone, according to Robert D. Macy, Ph.D., executive director of the Boston Children's Foundation and founder of the Boston Center for Trauma Psychology.

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