The Wrong Way to Fight Gang Crime

By TRACY VELAZQUEZ
Washington
Sunday, May 24, 2009

This Memorial Day, the District is starting the summer with a decline in crime. Homicides are down 22.6 percent from the same point a year ago, according to the D.C. police department, and violent crime in general is running about 3 percent below last year.

Despite this good news, some neighborhoods continue to experience higher rates of violence. Two bills -- one by D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), the other by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty -- are attempting to address this violence by creating far-reaching "anti-gang" policies. Unfortunately, because these policies don't follow the research on how to effectively prevent youth violence, they aren't likely to work and may in fact make our city less safe. Specifically, research has found that civil injunctions against gangs do not improve public safety and that such policies often unfairly target youth and communities of color.

A gang injunction is a judicial order that prevents people identified as gang members from congregating in public spaces within a certain area and that creates additional restrictions on otherwise legal activities. This is not a new concept: Los Angeles has used injunctions and other suppression tactics for years. Yet L.A. remains the gang capital of the world. In contrast, New York City chooses to address gang-related crime through increased street work and gang intervention programs. As a result, crime there has fallen to historic lows, with gang-related offenses just a blip on the New York crime scene.

How can punitive anti-gang policies, such as injunctions, reduce public safety? First, increased law enforcement and the aggressive stop-and-search techniques often associated with injunctions can increase tension between the community and police. Community members may become reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement. Also, permanent injunctions may actually reinforce gang affiliation, making it more difficult for youths to move on to become productive, law-abiding adults. Research published by the Justice Department has found that "gang membership tends to be short-lived, even among high-risk youth . . . with very few youth remaining gang members throughout their adolescent years." But the consequences of a permanent gang injunction can last a lifetime.

Injunctions may also have the unintended consequence of making it harder for young people to participate in positive social institutions that expose them to role models and healthier patterns of behavior. And the reluctance of mainstream social institutions to embrace former gang members and other people with criminal records means youths who are now being labeled as gang members -- often based on loose definitions that can include three kids engaging in nuisance behavior -- may face longstanding barriers to education and employment. That makes leaving the gang life behind even more difficult.

Besides failing to improve public safety, anti-gang policies such as injunctions often unfairly target youths of color. Police can misidentify youths as gang members based solely on race, ethnicity, style of dress or association with others labeled as gang members. This can have serious consequences, particularly for communities of color. In Los Angeles, for example, nearly half of all black men ages 21 to 24 were entered into a gang database in 2003. Clearly, those engaging in serious criminal behavior need to be held accountable, but branding a swath of kids through an injunction will do lasting harm to D.C. families and neighborhoods.

The District should focus its resources on strengthening youth employment and summer programs rather than on punitive policies that wall off communities, harm minorities, and waste money and public safety resources. It's time to concentrate on implementing real solutions to the city's public safety challenges. Providing positive alternatives is an investment in youth and the most effective way of increasing safety for our communities and families.

The writer is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.


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