Governments Response To Gangs And Problems Caused Criminology Essay

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In this essay I aim to critically evaluate and consider the Governments response to the problems of Gangs. I will look at a number of schemes and policies recommended and put into practice by the government and assess there success, as well as looking at the arguments for and against them.

'Gangs' are not a modern or recent occurrence. There were similar concerns and unease during the late nineteenth century over rising youth crime, gang violence. There have been a various examples of gangs over the decades; ever since the 1950s we have seen 'teddy boys', 'mods and rockers', 'punks', 'skin-heads' and in more recent times 'hoodies'; all portrayed as violent or criminal 'gangs'. Recent media coverage has raised the public's fears of violence and there is a growing sense among the public that we need to combat this troubling trend. Concerned citizens are demanding the need of the state to tackle youth violence and put an end to the unnecessary deaths of young people in our communities.

Recent incidents of youth violence have been laid at the blame of 'gangs'. However to fully understand the problems of 'gangs' and what can be done to tackle them, we must first understand what the definition of a 'gang' actually is.

Though there is no reliable definition as to what a gang is, modern definitions define a gang as a group that has:

A name which all 'members' recognise and accept;

An identity related to territory;

Participants who define themselves as gang members;

A structure of hierarchy;

A high level of involvement in crime;

The use of extreme violence (including murder) to achieve their objectives.

(Home Office, 2004)

Up until 2008 the government had always tended to associate gangs with young people, who identify themselves as part of a group and commit crimes or are involved in criminal activity as a member of that group (as opposed to committing a crime individually). However since 2008, the Home Office has placed more prominence on the use of guns by gangs, prompting the definition:

'A gang: a group of three or more people who have a distinct identity (e.g. a name or badge/emblem) and commit general criminal or anti-social behaviour as part of that identity. This group uses (or is reasonably suspected of using) firearms, or the threat of firearms, when carrying out these offences.' (TGAP, 2008:23)

Despite the Home Office establishing a definition in 2004 and also applying the definition set by Manchester Multi Agency Gang Strategy (MMAGS) in 2008, it had failed to be universally adopted by those involved in tackling gangs. As a result the Gangs Working Group, taking into account all the variations from Britain and America, formulated a definition that could be applied universally:

''A relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who (1) see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group, (2) engage in a range of criminal activity and violence, (3) identify with or lay claim over territory, (4) have some form of identifying structural feature, and (5) are in conflict with other, similar, gangs.' (Dying to Belong, 2009:21)

Concern is being driven by the extensive media coverage of violent incidents involving young people, such as in February 2007, when there were 4 fatal shootings in London within an 11 day period, in which 3 of the victims were teenagers. The problem of urban violence is not fundamentally a problem of gangs and should not be tackled as if it is. This belief has pushed into the background the multitude of other factors that have a determinate effect on street-violence.

The coverage of gangs and gang violence in the media shows many of the characteristic of a 'moral panic', in that reporting is out of all proportion to the actual threat.

Uk gang membership accounts for approximately 3-7% of youths, whilst 90% (Youth Justice Board) of youths have not been involved in crime. (Home Office, 2004)

Gangs do not pose a major threat to the safety of the community - most 'gang-crime' takes place between 'gang-members'.

There is no reliable definition of what a gang is; furthermore not all gang members commit crime. According to a Home Office study of young gang members only 20% of self-defined members reported to having engaged in violence, weapon and drug related offences.

There is no accurate way to count and define "gang-related" crime. True motives behind so many 'gang crimes' lies in purely settling personal disputes and trivial matters unrelated to the gang as a collective. (Shropshire & McFarquhar, 2002)

Furthermore, in the UK, approximately 10% of young people aged 10 to 19 defined themselves as belonging to a 'gang'. Though only a small number of these gangs may fit the stereotype or pose a real threat to community safety. Approximately 3% of 10-to-19 year olds are in gangs whose involvement in illegal activity is part of their group identity, but perhaps only 10% of these are directly linked to serious criminal activity.

In inner-city areas such as London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, gang activity is being held responsible, more and more, for violent crime, drugs and an ever intensifying fear of crime. These statistics have been brought home to the wider populace by high profile cases such as the death of Rhys Jones in 2007.

The attention that gangs have received has led to the misguided conclusions that gangs are the sole problem and the solution to gangs and gang violence lies in suppressing them. Consequently many of the government responses have been formed by public and media pressure to address gang issues within inner city areas. The rise in public fear of crime is a result of media representations with sensationalist stories that underpin widespread attitudes and beliefs about gangs, highlighting the association between violent behaviour and gangs and gang members. News coverage within the media often shows the outcome of the latest incident of gang violence and its subsequent affects (fear, injury or death) on the neighbourhood residents (Bullock & Tilley, 2008).

Although numerous images and perceptions were the result of media generalisation and sensationalism, most researchers agree that gang behaviour has changed in the past 5 years or so, for the most part with regards to (gang) violence. Previously, gangs would hardly ever be involved in fights, however when they were, the fights almost never resulted in serious injury. (Hallsworth & Young, 2008).

In a number of areas local groups and police have begun to set up responses to gangs within their local authorities, although one might argue that this is due to political pressures and a rise in public fear driven by the media rather than as a result of the reality of the gang problem.

Through the fear of the circumstances surrounding gangs declining, many believe the way to stop gang violence is to take away gang members away from society ant put them into the criminal justice system, however overlooks the reasons why young people form and join gangs in the first place. It is for this reason that it has been seen and criticised as an unsuccessful approach in America, as it has contributed to an ever increasing prison population and proliferation of established gangs in prisons (Katz et al, 2000).

The rise in prison populations in England and Wales are also quite significant; according to the latest population figures, released by HM Prison Service the total prison population, as of 25th February 2011, was at 85,206 compared to 76,678 in February 2006 and 42000 in 1991 (HM Prison Service; Population Figures, 2008), it is clear to see that the total number of men and women in prisons has more than doubled in the last two decades and is continuing to increase each year.

Also, a recent study, the Compendium of Reoffending Statistics and Analysis (CRSA, 2010), published by the Ministry of Justice, highlighted a number of significant figures related to crime and reoffending rates. The findings within the Compendium show the adult reconviction rate in 2008 at 40.1% and the juvenile reconviction rate at 37.3%. The figures show fourteen prisons in England and Wales with reconviction rates higher than 70%. Statistics based on 2007 data show reoffending rates of individual prisons varying from 26.7% to 76.6% for offenders serving 12 months or less and 2% to 54.9% for offenders serving more than 12 months.

Though the figures are not representative of strictly gang crime, it is clear to see that more emphasis needs to be placed at tackling the root causes of offender behaviour and gang mentality.

In contrast to the USA, coordinated strategies for tackling gangs in the UK are in their early years. Numerous interventions have been central Government led, focusing on enforcement and justice system interventions where the Government's influence is greatest. Spending on youth justice had risen from £381million in 2000 to £648million in 2007, though with relatively limited results. There has also been a 'Home Secretary's Round Table on guns, knives and gangs', and various Home Office announcements around tackling serious violence.

These 'top-down' approaches ignore the importance of a local understanding of context and priorities. A range of interventions, from ASBOs to dispersal orders, to non-negotiable child behaviour contracts, increased sentences and knife arches have all faced criticisms for being top-down and impracticable. The youth justice system is criticised, in the same way as its adult counterpart, for failing to address the 'needs' of vulnerable youth and focusing only on their offending. New reports continue to reaffirm the view that more wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary and locally tailored approaches to criminal justice are required.

The government has made some positive steps towards addressing the issues of gangs, gang crime and gang violence in terms of policy making and multi agency strategies, some of which are; Youth Offending Team (YOT), this is a place for young offenders to seek advice and guidance from social workers, probation officers, police officers, education and health workers, housing workers and drug misuse professionals; and Manchester Multi Agency Gang Strategy (MMAGS), this was introduced in 2001, and is part of the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership (CDRP) team working to tackle the problems of street gangs involved in firearms use. (Manchester City Council, 2011)

In 2007 a ministerial task force was set up by the then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. The task force, Tackling Gang Action Programme (TGAP), was set up to address serious gang violence in four cities; Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Manchester. It is comprised of central and local government and frontline services and was intended to deliver a tailored package of enforcement action and community reassurance for the four key areas. The programme was to build on the existing strategies in each of the four areas, providing support and enabling new development of approaches to tackle gangs. TGAP invested £1.5million on the interventions within the cities, such as;

'Operation Argon in London - used TGAP funding during Christmas and New Year to operate Neons (high-visibility policing), resulting in zero nightclub fatalities during the festive period; high-visibility policing operations in Liverpool for deployments of Operation Staysafe - which removed young people from the streets late at night - and covert surveillance of gang members; Operation Pepper and Operation Angelcake in Manchester - provided local reassurance patrols and targeted gang members through overt and covert disruption tactics; funding for targeted civil injunctions, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and police support for enforcement of ASBOs in Birmingham.' (TGAP, 2008)

To put the work of TGAP into context, let us look at the problems and the approaches to address those problems in Manchester. During the 80's the Doddington and Gooch gangs formed and established crime organisations and took over the cocaine and heroine market. These gangs recruited young men to carry out their work. In the 90's, there was a boom in the crack 'marketplace' and both gangs fought to establish their dominance and control. Since then various sub gangs have formed and are still generally associated with the original gangs.

In response to the escalating gangs and guns problem within the city, Greater Manchester Police (GMP) launched Operation Xcaliber, in order to provide a strategic and tactical response to support the aim of operation - 'Aim for gun free streets'.

In 2006 Greater Manchester Police established a taskforce for Operation Xcaliber, in order to tackle young gang members involved in serious violent crimes. This involved a joint response from the police and the local authorities. Other local authorities within Manchester also established a joint Violent Gangs Board to provide a response to the cross authority gang issues.

The Manchester Multi-Agency Gang Strategy (MMAGS), located within the CDRP framework, is dedicated to working on the problems of street gangs and associated firearms use through multi-agency co-operation (TGAP, 2008).

The government has also released a guidance paper on how to safeguard children that may be affected by gang activity. In doing this the government is attempting to tackle the issue before it happens by 'nipping the bud'. If the children can be kept safe and away from the affects of gangs, this reduces the likelihood of them being involved, either as a member or victim, once they have grown a little older. This guidance fits within the framework of Every Child Matters and the existing legal framework, which requires relevant agencies to take responsibility for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of every child to enable them to: be healthy; stay safe; enjoy and achieve; make a positive contribution; and achieve economic well-being (Home Office, 2010).

Though the above mentioned programmes and guidance's highlight that government is attempting to address the problems of gangs by identifying the causal factors of youths joining gangs, coordinating efforts between communities the police and probation services and other local authorities more emphasis needs to be placed on prevention and intervention rather than punishment.

Prevention needs to be more emphasised in any strategy attempting to address youth gangs, yet it has probably been the most neglected type of intervention, with more focus previously being spent on punishing existing gang members rather than preventing the youth from joining. In order to tackle this pressing issue effectively, we have to reach youths before they get involved with gangs.

Prevention programmes can be focussed to specific environments, for example, certain pre-schools, primary schools or geographic areas, as we have seen with the 'Safeguarding Children..' guidance paper; the key goal is to reduce future gang membership amongst young people.

Gang prevention programmes require accurate knowledge of the predictors of gang membership and they require knowledge of the causes of gangs and gang membership. Finally, they require knowledge of the likely impact of prevention efforts.

However, one could also argue that prevention programmes fail to focus on individuals that are already in gangs. Also, there is a general lack of agreement about why gangs appear and why youths join gangs. Therefore, it is more difficult to develop gang prevention programs and assess their impact, and for that reason, even if the prevention programme was well implemented, it may have no effect on the gang problem.

To conclude I would argue that gangs are not a new phenomenon but in some communities they are attracting increasing numbers of young people, getting more heavily involved in drugs and violent crime, and creating an intense fear of crime among local people. The Government has spent billions trying to bring down youth crime with a mix of interventions ranging from crack-downs, to the creation of Youth Offending Teams, Community Justice Initiatives and Family Intervention Projects. The success of these initiatives, and the public response to them, has been variable, in part due to the lack of coordination and top-down nature of their creation. What is needed now is a locally led system that ties all these initiatives together in a way that is appropriate for the specific local conditions in which these gangs prosper.