Youth gangs are a huge problem in America today. In this paper we discuss the causes of youth becoming involved with gangs. How the juvenile justice system functions in dealing with these youths. We also discuss the prevention and control of youth gangs. This is an ongoing epidemic in our society. Only through careful and devoted methods will we save our youth from becoming involved with gangs and all the negative consequences that come associated with this type of criminal activity.
Youth Gangs in America Today
In America today there are approximately 774,000 gang members (Egley, Howell, & Moore, 2010). Many of these gang members are minors. Gangs and, violence associated with gangs, are a problem in America today. One major question is why do youth join gangs? The answers are complex and many. Another problem with gangs includes minors becoming involved with the juvenile justice system and what that entails. The final question is how do we confront the gang problem that we have? There has been a decrease in gang criminality lately and that is a trend that we need to continue. Gangs affect all of our lives in some shape or form whether we know it or not. It is a problem that we all need to be aware of and also do our best to help youths stay away from the negative consequences that accompany gang involvement.
Why youth become involved with gangs is a complex question. Kids face difficult challenges growing up in today's society. One factor of gang involvement is minors living in impoverished areas. Another factor is that minors that come from broken homes are also likely to join gangs. Still a third factor is that negative peer influences could lead a minor to join a gang. Let look at each one of these individually
Living in impoverished areas brings about many opportunities for gangs to thrive. In these impoverished areas the opportunities for financial advancement are bleak. Most gangs profit in the sale of drugs. Youths living in poverty may desire material possessions and to them it appears to be easier to get them through selling drugs, to obtain the money to purchase goods, or steal them as part of a gang. Older gang members will recruit minors by showing them the things that being in a gang has allowed them obtain. "Bling" is a powerful influence on minors and minors may think that joining a gang is their only way to obtain them when they look around and see the realities of the poor environments in which they live. Living in poverty is certainly a tough proposition and to some being part of a gang may be the only way they see to make any money.
Children from broken homes are three times more likely to join gangs than kids that grow up in a traditional home (Johnson, 2005). Often when parents become divorced the custodial parent has to take on more than one job to help provide for the family financial. Kids then have less interaction with their parents and this isolation leaves them feeling abandoned. These youths will turn to gangs to help them deal with feelings of loneliness and insecurity. Gangs provide a sense of belonging and the affection that they are missing at home. Humans, especially children want to feel that they are loved and needed and gangs offer that to children from broken homes. Also I believe that when the parents are absent from their children's lives it is easier for gangs to prey and influence them into gang activities. The loss of positive home influences leaves a minor out on his own trying to decide right and wrong which is something that many are ill-prepared to handle.
The third and most important factor to me is the effect of peer influence on gang involvement. There is plenty of evidence to suggest, that if youths hang out with other youths that are deviant, then the likely hood of deviant behavior increases for those that have not been previously involved. Peer pressure is strong among minors. All kids seem to seek out others with similar interest and ideals. For some that might be athletic or academic endeavors, while for others that might be deviant behavior. This in my estimation encompasses both of the previous topics as to why minors become involved with gang activity. All of these factors lead to the possibility of minors becoming involved with the juvenile justice system which will be covered next.
Minors that become involved in gangs have a high probability of becoming involved with the juvenile justice system. First they will become involved with law enforcement. This is the first step in the process. The next step is the juvenile court system that will decide what the third step will be. The third step could be anything from release to incarceration in a juvenile or adult facility. All of these are important steps in the cycle of gang prevention and control. These steps could be the difference between children staying in gangs and becoming lifetime criminals or getting out and starting on a more positive life course.
Law enforcement agencies are generally the first to come into contact with gangs. These agencies devote many resources to education and training for dealing with gangs. They monitor and survey gang activity so as to have a finger on the pulse of what is going on in the gangs. Eventually this information will lead to detention of minors involved in gang activity. Youth gang members lack the experience of older gang members to avoid interaction with police. Detainment leads interaction with the Juvenile court system.
The juvenile court system is responsible for determining what treatment path a delinquent juvenile will take. The court has to decide on judicial matters and serve as guide monitor for all the parties involved, including the minor, the parents, and the service that will be responsible for treatment of the juvenile. Court involvement does not end at disposition, but rather continues until treatment is accomplished or jurisdiction of the minor ends. Juvenile court is the most important part of the juvenile justice system as it has a broad scope of functions in dealing with deviant behaviors committed by youths.
Treatment is the third leg of the juvenile justice system. Treatment exists in many different forms such as, probation, community service, restitution, and incarceration in a juvenile facility. (Seigel, 2009) (Burke) (Johnson, 2005)Treatments for some minor offenses are handled by social welfare services like drug and alcohol abuse. These services are better provided by organizations that handle these types of problems every day. Minors that are place on probation report to a probation officer or the court and records are kept to monitor their progress. Incarceration is usually handled by a state or county run facility. Incarceration is being used less now for minor offenses as it is believed that jailing youths for minor offenses has more negative effects than positive. Being incarcerated with juveniles with more serious deviant behaviors leads escalation in deviant behavior. All of these factors come into play when a minor makes the decision to involve in anti-social behavior. The likely hood of youths coming into contact with the juvenile justice system is more pronounced when they are in gangs. The best way to keep this from happening is to prevent youths from joining gangs.
Prevention and control of gang activity is not a police problem nor is it a community problem it is a society problem. We all need to help in the prevention of gang and more specifically youth involvement in gangs. Community based programs have had a positive effect on gang control. Public funded government programs have had a mixed result some work others do not. Sports programs have had some success in keeping kids out of gangs. All of these programs have a positive influence on youth, an influence that could be the difference between joining a gang and not joining.
Community based programs are exactly what they say they are. They are programs that involve the whole community in the prevention of gangs and act as an alternative for youths to stay away from gang activity. The schools, churches, local law enforcement, and after school programs all act to impact youth as positively as possible. With this many people looking out for the best of interest of youth it is hard for gang peer pressures to creep in. I think this is the absolute best strategy for controlling gang involvement by youths. Saturation of positive messages from the community to me and also help teach the child what is acceptable in a proper society.
Public funded government programs have had mixed results. Programs like G.R.E.A.T.(Gang Resistance Education and Training) have had a positive impact. G.R.E.A.T. is aimed at middle schoolers. Evaluations found that kids who took the program had a greater display of prosocial behavior than those who did not receive the program(Siegel, Welsh p.479). Other programs like Operation Ceasefire work initially but government cutbacks may hinder long term effects. These are just two examples of programs that work but have mixed reviews. They are many others out there but I still feel that reaching youths through the community is the most effective way of preventing youth activity in gangs.
Sports programs act as an alternative to gang involvement. Sports occupies a great deal of time of youth. The idea being that if youths are playing sports they will have less time to participate in anti-social behaviors is good in theory but I do not know if it works great in practice. Even after sports activities have ended there is still plenty of time left for youths to find their way into the gang lifestyle. Gangs may turn away youths that display potential for high athletic success, but marginal athletes may possess the physical attribute that will serve them well. There is a place for sports programs in youth gang prevention but they needed to be incorporated into the community based programs.
Youth gangs tax society in a variety of ways. They put strain on the judicial and law enforcement agencies by requiring training and continuing education. Tax payer dollars are spent so that these agencies can be best suited to deal with the consequences of youth gang involvement. Strain is also placed on neighborhoods as many become fearful and to some degree lawless as the gangs become to powerful for the local law enforcement agencies to keep a foothold on criminal activity. This strain leads to the deterioration of neighborhoods and become a safe haven for drug abuse and criminal activity. A neighborhood is a small culture and as these neighborhoods waste away we are losing an important aspect of society as a whole. We may never have all the answers for combating youth gangs but we can never stop trying. As Edmund Burke said in the 1700's " All that is necessary for the triumph is evil is that good men do nothing." This rings as true today as it did then.