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November 25, 2009

Sanctions alone can’t stop gang violence, national expert insists

Irving A. Spergel

Irving A. Spergel

Youth gang violence continues to plague American cities, and the customary techniques for combating the problem don’t work, according to a national expert.

“The criminal justice system, legislators, politicians and many policymakers have made a major blunder in calling for only sanctions to address the youth gang problem,” said Irving A. Spergel, George Herbert Jones Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, who discussed his model for countermanding gang violence in a lecture here last month sponsored by Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems. “It’s less costly and more effective to counter youth gang violence if agencies and community groups work together in a collaborative outreach fashion.”

Spergel, who has studied inner city gang-related issues since the 1950s, developed the “Spergel Model,” which has been piloted in some 20 American cities over the past decade and is endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

He said it is impossible to eliminate gangs, but that reducing gang-related violence is a tenable goal.

“In the course of my work as a social worker, administrator, program designer and, at this point in my career, a program evaluator, I’ve concluded that an effective approach to the gang problem requires a team of outreach workers getting out into the streets and developing relationships with kids,” he said. Such a team includes street gang youth workers, police and probation officers, teachers and social service agency workers all targeting gang youths engaged in violence and serious criminal activity, and focused on those youths at the highest risk of participating in such gang activity, Spergel said.

“Also required are the involvement and coordination of organizations and community groups whose workers are or should be concerned with the problem, along with close monitoring of their efforts to make sure everyone is doing the job they’re supposed to do,” he said. “A comprehensive multi-strategy approach is required if we are to reduce and control the problem. The assumption I’m making is that the gang problem is not just what the kids do, it’s also what’s contributing to the problem, and that is the response — or lack of it — of the community.”

He said politicians, police and policymakers are naive in measuring the effectiveness of their efforts solely on incarceration and crime rates, because this fails to address the root causes of gang violence.

Those causes are multitudinous, Spergel maintained, which is why it takes years for any program directed at youth gang violence to succeed. He cited conditions that lead to gang formation: the presence of low-status, low-income marginalized minority, racial and ethnic groups; population movement; de facto segregation; racism/ethnocentrism; local government policies; neighborhood organization; family disorganization; limited economic opportunities, and the concentrations of socially deviant youth subcultures, as well as the weakness, conflicted interest and disorganization of local community agencies.

“By community, I mean more than just the residents. It’s also the cops, the teachers, the community service workers, the businesses, the churches, the local governments,” Spergel said. “You have to bring resources into the community. It has to be a two-way interaction.”

Part of the problem also is the lack of sufficient support for gang programs from sponsoring and funding agencies, including the criminal justice organizations, foundations and social science research communities, that often would rather study the scope of the problem than what effectively can be done about it, he said.

A small irony in this situation is that it should be easy to mobilize resources to help prevent and suppress gang violence because there is universal consensus against it.

“And that includes the gang members themselves,” Spergel said. Much of the violence is retaliation for perceived territorial violation or is considered necessary self-protection, rather than gratuitous, although there also is some of that type, he noted. “Gangs can’t be blamed for every homicide,” although sometimes that is the public’s perception, he said.

“When you think of gang kids, you have to realize that gangs are different and they change over time. The kids in a gang are different and they change over time,” Spergel said.

Gangs can be formed around different commonalities: “The kids with a chip on their shoulder; the kids who want to smoke pot or get drunk. It’s a mixed bag. The way the gangs target new members differs as well,” he said. New members may be tapped by a family member, or they may join because they are not doing well in school or because they come from a dysfunctional family. Schools contribute to gang formation when they suspend students rather than giving them on-site detention, he noted.

“What are the motivations to join a gang? It’s not necessarily the most aggressive kids. It’s often kids where the mother is working; the father is out of the picture, and the gang becomes a surrogate parent or family. Maybe the kid is not doing well in school, and he feels like in the gang he is gaining respect or status,” Spergel said.

Spergel’s model focuses on youth from about 12 or 13 to 21 or 22. “Sometimes there are older gang members, but many of them move on in their 20s. It’s the younger ones who start off with petty damage such as graffiti, property destruction and mob action, and then move on to heavier violence. Based on national gun violence data, shooters usually are 15-19. Eventually, you find a criminal system developing. These patterns are similar across the world. They have to make a living, make a buck, so opportunities arise involving crime like selling drugs, for example,” Spergel said.

The main goal of his model, he said, is to improve community capacity to reduce gang crime and violence. Spergel outlined suggested tactics and strategies, structures and processes derived from his model:

• Target the most violent gang members. “The immediate target has to be cutting violence down,” Spergel said.

• Balance the roles of the social youth worker and the police. “A social worker calling the cops when he sees a crime is a problem unless the cops will keep the informant confidential. So they have to communicate and build a good relationship,” Spergel said.

Social workers need to develop a professional relationship with kids, rather than a peer relationship, so they can offer counseling and warnings to prevent crime. The best way to build trust is through an introduction to gang members by a former member of the gang, although that is not absolutely necessary, he added.

• Employ an intensity and continuity of effort. “Youth workers can’t just be there when a fight breaks out. They have to be out in the streets on Friday and Saturday nights and even, if possible, daily,” he said. “They have to contact gang member peers and families, teachers and ministers.”

• Commit to the problem long-term. “This is very frustrating work. You may have some successes, but surely you’ll have some failures,” Spergel said.

• Promote social intervention.

• Mobilize the community.

• Provide social and economic opportunities, such as jobs and job training.

• Suppress crime. “You do need some pressure, you need the cops out there. If [a gang member] does something wrong, if he shoots somebody, there have to be consequences,” Spergel said. On the other hand, a social worker who has established trust is in position to ward off crime by counseling youths against it, he said.

In terms of its overall structure, Spergel’s model recommends establishing a steering committee with representatives from the mayor’s office, city council, the various social service government agencies, youth social workers, police and probation officers. From among that group, there needs to be an inter-agency street team, working in collaboration.

Institutional representatives should include criminal justice, social services, schools, churches, businesses, government, employment/training programs and researchers to evaluate progress.

The processes to implement the model include: defining the problems and issues confronting the youths; planning in a coordinated way; organizing community participation; establishing case management programs; assessing and evaluating programs; fundraising to support the street work, and, eventually, promoting legislative action.

Finally, Spergel decried the lack of research done on a problem that clearly is widespread and impacts most communities.

“We don’t really know enough about the scope or seriousness of the gang problem and even less about what you do about the problem. How do you evaluate these programs? Someone claims success, but where’s the data? The nature of the research has to be much improved,” he said. “We need police data, gang-related or gang-motivated data, data on various elements that define the problem: How to help someone leave a gang; how to make comparisons between communities, one with a program in place, one without.

“I fault the federal government and foundations who are looking at research and evaluation of gang programs as an afterthought. They come in and apply a little bit of money and say, ‘Go ahead, solve the problem.’ This is an expensive process, but it’s the only way we can learn what works and what doesn’t work.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 42 Issue 7

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