To undo gang influence, educate, don't incarcerate

Teaneck would be better off spending money on mentoring young men than meeting the Police Department's demand for nearly $700,000 to beef up the gang unit.

That's what Teaneck Police Chief Paul Tiernan wants for anti-gang policing. The money would be better spent partnering with programs that work with dropouts, gangsta wannabes and others who need job, reading and parenting skills. Tiernan's rationale for the budget boost is the kind that the anti-incarceration research group Justice Policy Institute calls ineffective. The institute recently reported that law enforcement executives all over the country exaggerate the gang problem, using the fear of gangs like a crowbar to pry loose funding for policing only.

The criminal justice system thrives on such misrepresentations that ultimately feed the growth of the prison population. This classic example of misguided public policy demonizes black and brown juveniles more than others, with early detours to prison guaranteeing them lives of instability and low productivity. The calculated deceptions end up shoving young black men into the cavernous maw of the $60 billion prison-industrial complex. Black and Latino urban thugs complete the picture of gangs as the main source of crime, violence and disorder that can only be eradicated with more money for policing.

It's a false image burned into the public consciousness, says the study.

Raising the specter of a gang epidemic puts minority men in the pipeline to prison. where they end up a disproportionate 60 percent of the nation's 2.2 million inmates. If you were unsure of the existence of the prison-industrial complex or how it works in the lives of African-American men and their families, here's a piece of it staring you dead in the face.

Recent figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest that if present incarceration trends continue, one in every three black men born today will spend time in jail in his lifetime. For Hispanic males the number is one in six, double the white rate. New Jersey's juvenile detention population is approaching 90 percent African-American and Hispanic.

The racial disparity of the prison population is sometimes referred to as an unintended consequence of mass incarceration -- policies that give the United States the highest number of people in prisons and jails compared to every other country on the planet. But it's impossible to consider the consequences as "unintended" when deliberate deceptions have such a positive economic impact. Consider what would be lost without inmates feeding the multibillion dollar prison economy: salaries, prison construction, financing profits, social services and court staffing, among other items.

The striking findings in the Justice Policy Institute's report, called "Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies," debunk the pervasive myths about gangs:

  • The nation's gang population dropped more than 100,000 in the eight years since 1996, leaving 760,000 as of 2004.
  • Crimes attributable to gangs are also down substantially.
  • The popular face of gangs is black and brown, but youth surveys show a truer face of gangs where "whites account for 40 percent of adolescent gang members."
  • Gangs are not major players in the drug trade and account for only a small portion of drug sales.

The study's authors concluded that aggressive gang suppression can't be credited with a major reduction in crime. The JPI study said there's ample proof that science-based social service interventions can curb delinquency.

Effective gang control needs to pair policing with prevention programs that include social services, recreation, education and counseling. Existing gang control only encourages young people to take the express train from schoolhouse to jailhouse.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., co-authored legislation this year to tackle the gang issue. Street-level policing is balanced with job training, economic empowerment and mentoring. The multimillion-dollar legislative package, Fighting Gangs and Empowering Youth, adds new programs to already existing ones designed to steer gang wannabes away from thug life. Outreach programs for mentoring, drug awareness and anti-violence would be offered to middle-schoolers. Ex-offenders trying to avoid gangs get housing, employment and counseling.

That approach to dealing with youth gangs makes more sense than throwing them up as a convenient bete noire responsible for unresolved problems of crime and policing.

Lawrence Aaron
29 July 2007

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