Street Gangs

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This essay will discuss the response to street gangs within the United States of America. I will define a ‘street gang’; how street gangs are formed, and what they consist of. This essay will discuss theories such as; Cohen’s (1955) Strain Theory and Differential Opportunity. Finally, l will attempt to assess the responses of prevention, intervention and suppression. The question of what constitutes a ‘street gang’ is debatable, as it is suggested there is no single accepted definition of youth gangs.

Street gangs existence centers on the street or locality and whose membership is youthful, and may be believed that these types of street gangs are associations of peers and friends who have mutual interests and most of all is definitely associated with crime. A well known example of two particular street gangs within the US would be the infamous Cripps and Bloods of Los Angeles which actually comprise about one hundred sets of groups often named after the Main Street of their area (Bing, 1992, cited in Cremin, 2009). In the 1920s it was estimated by Thrasher that there was around 1,313 gangs in Chicago alone.

Thrasher’s (1936) study was the first to look at group’s processes and psychology of gang life. Through his study of 1,313 Chicago gangs, he concluded gangs are parts of the psychology and group process of teenagers in economically deprived communities. According to Thrasher,(1936) groups originally formed spontaneously, intergraded through conflict and are characterized by the following types of behavior: meeting face to face, movements within locality individually or collectively that incorporate, and conflict organized criminal planning.

Although, it may be believed that there is not one clear definition in the explanation of what is a ‘street gang’, however, one example is provided by the California Penal Code, (2008) within Dangerous Weapons Control Law, which states; “any organization, association or group of three or more persons whether formal or informal, which has common name, identifying sign or symbol, where members individually or collectively engage in, or engaged in a pattern of criminal activity which are gathered together to continuing basis to commit anti social behavior”

The question of what to do about gangs is prefaced by Hallsworth and Young, (2004) highlighting the impact that gang activity in the U. S. A. Despite an ongoing debate over the wisdom of importing initiatives from another culture the American influence on policy is still evident. The research paper commissioned by the Home Office ‘Shootings, Gangs and Violent Incidents in Manchester’ by Bullock & Tilley (2002) is based partly on the success of an ‘Operation Ceasefire’ in Boston (Harvard).

However as Colman and Norris (2000:65) recognize, there is little evidence to suggest the gang phenomenon is the same in both countries, Muncie (1999) and Downes (1966). In working out what to do about gangs it might be best to work out what causes them. In Maslow’s (1971) basic human need for belonging with Adler (1939) and Crandall’s (1981) work to suggest the argument that in the absence of an effective functioning family, and further more explains that, those various individuals who want to join a street gang, will seek support from anywhere they can get it.

In order to survive people require protection and increasingly other research suggests that gang formation is based on territory rather than ethnicity as discussed by Marshall, Webb and Tilley (2005:8) The one theory that perhaps demonstrates this point, is an need for status, as a response to social exclusion. Treadwell (2006:48) outlines this with Merton’s (1938) concept of ‘strain’ where the gap between aspiration and opportunity to achieve, results in people creating alternative standards.

Perhaps, this would explain the reason for crime being concentrated in lower class areas, and in lower class and minority groups, such as ‘street gangs in America’. The emphasis is upon men as an example are encouraged to persue success in terms of wealth and status, but to argue, the means of achieving wealth and status through education and employment, are not open to everyone. A collective account of what constitutes a gang is a major problem within the USA but nevertheless a history of anti gang policy is perhaps unsurprising when much of this policy activity is seen as ultimately failing.

Within this approach, attempting to prevent gang related crime is believed that primary prevention is one of the foundations in which the American Criminal Justice system is currently working on. In this approach, the substantial investment that has been enhanced within making prisons represent a public policy choice. Huff (2002), illustrates that one choice concentrating on responses, for resource expenditures of punishment and incapacitation for criminal behavior, is delivered after it has occurred.

Although by then, the offender has already been transformed into a criminal, thus damaging his or her life chances and by then, those individuals are then victims whose victimization might have been prevented. It may be suggested that, within most policies of the American justice system does not help within the deterrence of preventing criminal behavior, which adversely creates cities to conform to experience a social breakdown within traditional family values among society.

This affect causes the absence of social control over young people and affects communities, which therefore limits potential opportunities for individuals to progress within jobs and education, which may explain a young person development which gives reasons to becoming a gang member (Coleman, 2000) Peterson (2004) argues, most research into street gangs need to be used to inform and if possible to have some form of ‘effect’ within criminal justice policy. As most policies are infrequently practiced and are the most undeveloped by the people that are most affected.

The rationale for gang related prevention would provide effective programs that act as deterrence towards individuals who would become involved in gang related crime. For example, a Los Angeles program which is delivered by specially trained police officers namely- GREAT (Gang Resistance, Education and Training) is a system lead by the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco. This program is not designed to stop gangs but more to provide any hope in that speaking to young people may discourage them in joining gangs. (Peterson, 2004).

In evaluating this program, Peterson, (2004) agrees that GREAT has been favorably evaluated and students participating in GREAT are seen as having lower levels of gang involvement. However, Huff, (2004) states targeting specific groups such as young school pupils is far too early. Further evidence shows that a young person’s (twelve/thirteen) first arrest occurs after they begin their involvement with the gang. The effectiveness of targeting and applying the programme to every school child may perhaps fail the objective of the warrant to prevent young people from joining a gang.

More so, not targeting those children that may be already influenced by gang members is problematic. The positive effects of intervention within gangs is the idea that rather than trying to prevent gangs occurring, there is a point where there is a need to accept that they exist and that we need to intervene in their existence. This approach is to reconstruct within gang behavior or perhaps detach gang members out of gangs or provide or help provide individuals with employment opportunities.

In LA there is something called detach gang workers, who maybe a community worker dealing with gang members who tries to network between gang and tries to help alleviate such pressures that are experienced in being involved within gangs. Another successful US intervention programme is designed to help those who have already committed a criminal or delinquent act of detached workers among street gangs. Klein, (2007) criticized, this approach and suggested that there are profound weakness with the idea of a detach gang workers.

He suggested, rather than making matters better this type of help is actually making it worse. For example, increasing the ‘cohesiveness’ in gangs offending behavior which is centered on the group, rather this approach does not seek to weaken the relations between gang members but strengthens relationships (Peterson, 2004, and Klein, 1995). This blend of intervention strategy provides a useful transition to the final focus of this essay: street gang suppression.

In some ways while gangs exist there must be something that stops them or provides some form of control, such as Law enforcement agencies and higher sentencing. In dealing with gangs it is believed that, suppression is necessary but not a sufficient strategy for dealing with gang related crime. As within literature there is an ideology that, law enforcement within the United States simply cannot successfully deal with gang problem via arrests only (Huf, 2002). Suppression intervention involves tackling gangs and their memberships through tough law and order techniques of policing, prosecution and punishment.

One example in improving suppression in understanding of gang incidents reveal that, law enforcement should be practical as partners with the community, rather than engaging in war against the community (Denley, 2010). However, a scheme, run by the LA Sherriff’s Department called, Operation Safe Streets, has been seen as more effective through its use of officers placed long term within gang affected communities and who able to gather detailed community intelligence, which may present a positive approach for safer communities and may help reduce victimization.

To conclude, it is suggested that there are three ways of intervening in gang life, the emphasis has been on suppression, the criticism may be seen as a cure to make matters worse, made matters worse by alienated communities and individuals and actually imbedded gangs rather than getting rid of them. Similarly, gang suppression intervention is only dealt with the problem of gangs once they formed and they continue to form, by doing little in helping any of the social problems in America which are mentioned.

The need for structure, nurturing, and a sense of belonging and perceived economic opportunity create breeding grounds for gangs. However, street gangs may be seen as hanging around, but have some kind of organization and may have some relative of age, race and gender. Social circumstances within unsettled neighborhoods explain that there is likely to be gangs of youths, coming together to seek the security, sense of belonging and structure they lack in their communities.

Perhaps a need for the US agencies to develop strong relationships among youths in order for any label’s of street gangs to diminish. Social environmental issues are prevalent when analyzing gang behavior, therefore, the need to engage with the participants and ecological factors affecting gangs, needs to have more research data to base future policy initiatives upon. The question that should be asked is why young people are joining gangs in the first place?

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