Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gangs in Garden City by Sarah Garland

One study in Florida- among the most aggressive states when it came to cracking down on youth crime- found that putting children in prisons, especially adult prisons, raised the recidivism rate. The longer they were in detention, the more likely it was that they would go back to crime after their release, the study found. Another study compared juvenile recidivism in New York, with its tougher laws, to New Jersey, where juveniles were largely kept out of the adult criminal court system. It found that the New Jersey youth were less likely to be arrested again after their release. New York's system, in contrast, was a revolving door. A Center for Disease Control report also recommended against sending juveniles to adult jails, finding that that it "generally resulted in increased arrest for subsequent crimes, including violent crime." But by the time the report was published in November of 2007, following 'legislation beginning in the 1970s and 80s, the Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Acts of 1992- 94 and the Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Act of 1997, hundreds of thousands of young people had already passed through adult jails.

Minority youth bore the brunt of the crackdown. Studies showed that African American and Hispanic teenagers were arrested at higher rates, given harsher sentences and kept in jail longer than whites. Furthermore, thousands of young African Americans and Hispanic teenagers were listed in gang databases- suspects e before they had even committed a crime. Gang experts noted that the efforts of law enforcement officials to label the gang members complemented the work of the gangs themselves by fostering cohesion and further alienating the members from mainstream society. At same time, the definitions of gang membership varied widely across states and jurisdictions. Besides these wide variances in state laws, local law enforcement agencies often had a lot of discretion in deciding what counted as gang-related crime. The confusion about what constituted gang membership did little to stop widespread panic- fueled by media and politicians- about its growth.

In 2004, a group of Long Island police chiefs, among them Chief Russo of Hemstead and Chief Woodward of Freeport, released a joint report with a youth advocacy organization, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. The report warned that gang homicides were increasing, gangs in Long Island were growing, and that the members were getting younger and younger. Quoting Chief Russo, the report called gangs "domestic terrorists", who "intimidate entire neighborhoods and entire communities."

But throwing more of them in jail would backfire, the Long Island police argued. They pointed to a decade of cracking down against juveniles to prove their point. "Locking up youths in juvenile facilities may only increase the likelihood that they will continue a life of crime", the report said.

In Long Island in particular, the influx of young inmates had strained the already embattled juvenile justice system. In 1999, 1,000 children were held in Nassau and Suffolk annually, about quarter of the state juvenile inmate population and more than during the crime wave in the 1970s- even though crime among youth dropped 20% in Suffolk County and 29% in Nassau County over three years. The swell of new cases meant children waited longer in the island's dilapidated detention centers for their cases to wind through court and became more likely to act out again when they left.

The police report was critical of the Pataki administrations introduction of a new antigang initiative that year, Operation IMPACT. The program pumped more than $7 million into new gang task forces around the state, promoted information sharing, and trained law enforcement and educators in how to identify gang members. More law enforcement was "only a partial solution" the chiefs' report said. "Identifying gang members was only half the battle."

Their recommendations weren't innovative. They echoed the fifty-year-old 'Great Society' crime report commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, dusting off proposals to enhance intervention, address poverty, improve public schools that had been discarded in the anti-rehabilitation, 'get tough on crime' movement of the 1970s. The report was novel only in that it was written by a group of police officers begging to expand the response to gangs beyond more funding for their departments. "Law enforcement cannot solve the juvenile crime problem themselves. We can deal over and over with disasters, repeatedly repairing the expanding leak, or we can find the money to fix the hole in the roof", the report concluded.

1 comment:

  1. Reading the case studies in this book, it is hard to imagine what attracts young people to the stress and violence of gang membership. The older one gets the more apparent its disadvantages become yet, at the same time, the more difficult and dangerous it is to disassociate oneself from the gang and its subculture ( which includes ever-growing threats from rival gangs.)

    'In Gangs of New York, his history of 19th century gangs, Herbert Asbury observed that a young person joined a gang because of a yearning for fame and glory which he was unable to satisfy except by acquiring a reputation as a tough guy and a hard mug. The observation apples a century later to the Long Island suburbs, where slums were growing amid prosperity, producing new street gangs among the isolated and desperate second-generation immigrant population, just as they had the isolated Five Points tenements Asbury described.

    In the deeply segregated American suburbs, where escape routes were largely blocked and fear permeated the lives of many young people, the gangs would continue to find a ripe crop of recruits even if the immigration system were overhauled and rehabilitation programs were well funded.

    The teenagers in Hempstead heard stories about how Hispanics were hated and attacked just down the road. Just over the fences, they could see the all-white schools where success was a given, not a miracle. Just down the block, gangs beckoned as a way of fighting back, promising them the possibility of becoming someone- tough and inured to pain- who inspired respect. And as Detective Smith had observed, it was in the dysfunctional Hempstead schools where gangs had the most hours of the day to find new members.

    In the 1800s, politicians kept gang members on their payrolls to help them get elected. In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, politicians use gang members in more subtle ways- as a crime issue that could scare up votes or as evidence that they could be tough on crime when they announced a crackdown. Official bluster fed the gangs for years. Exaggerated warnings about their ruthlessness and power inflated their reputations with each press conference.

    The real problem in American society that fostered the growth of gangs can not be summed up in a sound bite or solved with harsher punishments. Reversing decades of failed criminal justice, immigration and educational policies, a push for deeper changes that could mend the divides in America stoking the spread of violence and hatred, would be a beginning.

    Gangs in Garden City; How Immigration, Segregation, and Youth Violence Are Changing America's Suburbs" by Sarah Garland; Nation Books, 2009