Next

Back

Contents

Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States

Combating Street Gangs

An important piece of the juvenile justice reform movement in this Nation has been devoted to finding new ways to reduce gang-related crime and violence. A number of States have enacted laws that enhance the penalties for gang-related offenses, and many local jurisdictions have adopted ordinances that are designed to curb or outlaw gang-related activities. Federal authorities and local law enforcement agencies also have combined resources to create multijurisdictional task forces and other bodies to investigate and prosecute gang members. Meanwhile, a host of prevention and intervention measures have been implemented in the schools to dissuade children and adolescents from joining gangs and engaging in crime and violence.

The term "gang" has no fixed legal meaning.94 Definitions of gangs have varied over time, according to the perceptions and interests of the definer, academic fashions, and the changing social reality of the gang. Once even defined as "play groups," the term gang has increasingly taken on pejorative connotations. In the most recent view, gangs are considered more pathological than functional organizations, so that the term has become almost synonymous with violent and criminal groups.95 Therefore, inherent in most recent definitions of a gang is the idea of criminality. Under one definition, a group is considered a gang if it has a formal organizational structure, identifiable leadership, identifiable territory, and recurrent interaction, and is engaged in serious or violent criminal behavior. 96

This view of gangs -- as pathological and criminal -- underlies many of the initiatives that States and local jurisdictions have adopted in the past decade. Because many acts of juvenile delinquency are committed by groups, the notion of juvenile delinquency has become closely associated with gang activity. Still, without an accepted definition to fall back on, State and local jurisdictions have tended to develop their own ideas of what constitutes "gang activity."

California, for example, defines "criminal street gang" as an ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons whose primary activities include the commission of one or more serious or violent criminal acts; that has a common name or identifying sign or symbol; and "whose members individually or collectively . . . have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity."97

The Spread of Gangs

By the early 1980's, gangs had sprung up in most of the large cities in the Nation, especially in the poorer inner-city and ring-city areas. In 1989, delinquent gangs were located in almost all 50 States. Together, 35 cities reported 1,439 gangs, with California, Florida, and Illinois leading the Nation in gang concentrations. Of the total 120,636 gang members reported in all surveyed cities, 70,000 were estimated to reside in Los Angeles County and 12,000 in Chicago.98 As of 1991, an estimated 4,881 gangs with 249,324 members existed across the Nation.99

Using the results of a 1993 national survey of law enforcement agencies, researchers estimated that the number of gangs jumped 77 percent between 1991 and 1993 to 8,625 gangs. They put the number of gang members at 378,807 and estimated that there were 437,066 gang-related crimes. Researchers, however, noted that the gang-crime problem is underestimated because many cities do not have the capacity to compile statistics and report on gang-related criminal activity. If estimates for the missing jurisdictions are included in their calculations, researchers put the number of gangs at 16,643, the number of gang members at more than 555,181, and the number of gang-related crimes at 580,331.100

Less urban areas are no longer safe from the infiltration of gangs and gang violence. Although some of the gangs are branches of megagangs, such as Los Angeles' Crips and Bloods, most gangs in midsized or smaller cities either originate locally or "are started by nonresident gang members via kinship, alliance, expansion of turf boundaries, or movement of gang members' families into new areas."101 The FBI and local police have reported the presence of Crips and Bloods in as many as 45 western and midwestern cities.102 Again, family migration, not relocation, appears to be the main reason for the emergence of gangs in smaller cities.103

The average gang is composed of males, ages 12 to 21, who reside in poor, central areas of cities with populations of more than 200,000. Although research on gang ethnicity is sketchy at best, one survey of gangs in large cities indicated that approximately 48 percent of all gang members are African-American, 43 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, and 5 percent white.104

Gangs, Drugs, and Violence

Little empirical research exists on gang involvement in drug trafficking. One 1991 study in Los Angeles found that while as many as one-quarter of gang members were somehow involved in crack cocaine distribution, drug trafficking was not a primary gang activity.105 News media accounts and conventional wisdom have linked inner-city violence to gang drug wars, but research has shown that most inner-city homicides are the result of turf battles, not drug violence.

In a 1995 study of Pomona and Pasadena, CA, two smaller cities outside Los Angeles, gang members were found to be involved in about 27 percent of arrests for cocaine sales and about 12 percent of the arrests for sales of other drugs. Crack cocaine was often present in gang cases, and gang-related drug cases were more likely to involve young African-American males than members of other age or racial groups. However, most aspects of cocaine sales, including location, firearm presence, and amount of cash, did not vary because of gang involvement. Firearms were involved in only 10 percent of the cases, and violence was present in only 5 percent of the incidents.106

A 1993 study of the four largest and most criminally active street gangs found only 8 of the 285 gang-motivated homicides between 1987 and 1990 to be related to drugs. Approximately 90 percent of the violent crimes involving youth gangs in the Boston area between 1984 and 1994 did not involve drug dealing or drug use.107

Approaches to Gang Control and Intervention

Gang problems traditionally have been local, urban problems, and governmental responses to gang problems traditionally have been focused at the local level. Yet, while the past decade has been marked by the spread of gangs and gang-related violence, it has also seen the growing confluence of Federal, State, and local efforts to control gang activity and reduce gang violence. Moreover, it has seen the rise of more proactive, community-based strategies for dealing with gangs.

Three general strategies for preventing gangs have been evaluated: preventing youth from joining gangs, transforming existing gangs into neighborhood clubs, and mediating and intervening in conflicts between gangs. Of the three approaches, prevention programs that integrate school curriculums with afterschool recreational activities seem to hold the most promise for preventing gang crime and violence.108

In areas where gang problems are endemic, such as Los Angeles County, prevention and intervention strategies combined with long-term, proactive investigations of entire gangs work better than reactive, short-term investigations and prosecutions of individual gang members.109

State Initiatives

States have done their part in the fight against gangs by enhancing penalties for gang-related crime and fostering cooperation between jurisdictions and disciplines. Illinois, for example, has adopted a coordinated, holistic approach to addressing gang problems. In 1995, Governor Jim Edgar established by executive order the 35-member Governor's Commission on Gangs, with Attorney General Jim Ryan serving as chairman. The commission was composed of Federal and State prosecutors, police, educators, parents, clergy, health professionals, lawmakers, and representatives of business and labor.110

The commission has held 16 public hearings, a youth forum, and a 2-day conference at locales across the State, gathering testimony from nearly 150 witnesses. As a result of commission findings and recommendations, the Governor, in June 1996, signed legislation drafted by the commission establishing a witness protection program. He also appropriated $1 million for a pilot program, which will run through June 1998, to protect victims and witnesses who testify against gang members. The new law includes strict sanctions for gang members who commit crimes, including an imposition of harsher penalties for gang leaders convicted of drug dealing and mandatory reporting of any firearm-related incidents at public schools to law enforcement with-in 24 hours. The commission is expected to issue a report that will stress the need for get-tough measures balanced by more intervention and prevention programs.

Another recent antigang measure from Illinois creates offenses for compelling another to join a gang or deterring resignation from a gang. Moreover, the State has enacted a law that prohibits a person who has coerced another to join a gang from receiving probation, a conditional discharge, or periodic imprisonment.111

Enhanced sentencing is yet another State response to combating crime committed by gangs and gang members. Arkansas and California, among other States, have increased the penalties for specific gang-related violence, such as drive-by shootings. In September 1996, California Governor Pete Wilson signed a law extending indefinitely the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, which was due to expire in January 1997 and which enhances penalties for gang-related activities.112

Other States have enacted statutes that enhance penalties for any criminal act committed by a gang member. For example, Tennessee enacted a law that adds criminal street gang membership as an enhancement factor for sentencing defendants who have committed a prior offense within the past 3 years. Provisions of a Nevada law include forfeiture of personal property that has been used in a gang crime and authorize schools to enforce antigang rules and develop gang-prevention problems.113

Local Initiatives

Local jurisdictions have a number of law enforcement approaches to controlling gang activity and reducing gang-related crime.114 Cities have passed ordinances prohibiting cruising, loitering, and many forms of belligerent public behavior, such as discharging weapons on private property, consuming alcohol in public, and playing loud music. Other cities have cracked down on graffiti and other forms of vandalism by regulating the sale, purchase, or possession of materials used to deface property115 and by adopting parental responsibility laws that make parents liable for the damage illegally caused by their children.116 Still other cities closely enforce truancy and curfew ordinances.

Some cities have attempted to discourage gang membership by prohibiting behavior that manifests gang membership, such as wearing gang colors or using gestures that communicate gang affiliation. For example, the city of Harvard, IL, prohibits individuals from wearing gang-related colors, emblems, or insignia in public or from making any utterances or gestures that communicate gang membership or insult to other street gangs. Since the ordinance became effective, the number of gang-related arrests has decreased from 87 in 1994 to 0 as of July 11, 1996.117

To control gang-related violence in and near public housing projects, housing authorities are authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to insert provisions into leases prohibiting the use, display, or possession of firearms. Gang members or family members and associates of gang members face eviction if caught using or possessing guns.118 Cities also have passed temporary ordinances banning access by gang members to public parks that have been the sites of confrontations between gangs.

Other cities have sought civil injunctions against gangs as "unincorporated associations" that prohibit targeted gang members from congregating in certain areas. Prosecutors in Los Angeles and nearby cities have implemented four gang injunctions, serving gang members with court documents and discussing with them activities prohibited by the court. Before a civil injunction against the Blythe Street Gang in April 1993, drive-by shootings were a weekly occurrence and a neighborhood grocery store was forced to close down. Since the injunction, the store is back, and at least a year has passed between drive-by shootings. A local community organization has received a major grant to make improvements to the neighborhood.119

Multijurisdictional Initiatives

Many counties and cities have found success in pooling resources with Federal and State agencies to fight and control gangs and gang-related violence. With the size and diversity of its gang problem, California, particularly Los Angeles County, has become a national leader in developing and implementing gang initiatives that draw on both Federal and local resources.

An estimated 150,000 members belong to more than 1,000 gang factions in the Los Angeles area, according to media reports. The Los Angeles Times reported that gang-related murders have accounted for roughly 40 percent of homicides in Los Angeles County in recent years. Although there has been an on-again, off-again truce between the two major gang divisions, the Crips and the Bloods, since the rioting surrounding the Rodney King verdict in the summer of 1992, gang-related violent crime continues to plague the region.120

As a response, Federal officials, in cooperation with local law enforcement authorities, launched the largest crackdown ever on Los Angeles gangs. They called their effort the Los Angeles Metropolitan Task Force (LA Task Force). The LA Task Force increased law enforcement efforts to combat violent gang crime -- the FBI increased the number of agents who investigate gangs and gang-related crimes from about 74 to 100;121 the U.S. attorney's office brought in an experienced gang prosecutor; and the local Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) office announced plans to hire another 10 agents, largely to investigate gang members.

By using Federal racketeering laws and other tactics such as wiretapping, Federal and local officials attempted to break down gang factions, including State prison gangs, which contribute to the drug dealing and violence that plague the inner-city areas. Federal sentencing laws are more stringent than State laws, and because there is no Federal parole, convicted felons serve their full sentences. Gang members can also be spread across the Federal system rather than being housed in State prisons where many of their fellow inmates may have been members of their gang outside prison walls.

As part of a self-initiated review of the effort, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) interviewed 37 members of local law enforcement agencies who had participated in the LA Task Force. The participants were asked which investigative methods worked best, if Federal contributions had been useful, and if multijurisdictional cooperation had been helpful in reducing gang violence.122

Participants reported that Federal assistance to Los Angeles law enforcement had been helpful in fighting the area's gang epidemic and was used for wiretapping and witness protection under Federal rules, overtime pay, equipment, office space, and money for informants and undercover purchases of drugs and firearms.

Most of the 24 line officers interviewed pointed to the task force's focus on long-term investigations of entire gangs, rather than reactive investigations of individual gang members, as a key to the LA Task Force's success. According to statistics provided to GAO, the LA Task Force was responsible for more than 2,000 arrests -- almost half for violent crimes -- between February 1992 and September 1995. Three-fourths of all Federal and State convictions coming from task force arrests were for violent crimes. GAO did not independently verify the statistics.

The LA Task Force was cited as an example of an effective program targeting violent crime in the U.S. Department of Justice's Attorney General's Progress Report to the President on the Anti-Violent Crime Initiative, released in September 1996. In particular, the Attorney General's report mentioned a 1-day effort in 1995 that resulted in a 57-percent drop in violent crime in one Los Angeles neighborhood.

The effort, called Operation Sunrise, was the result of more than 2 years of joint investigation of activities by the Eight Trey Gangster Crips. The gang made up less than 1 percent of the community's population but accounted for more than 80 percent of the area's violent crime, according to the GAO report. During the operation, Federal and local agents swept a 30-by-30-block area of South Central Los Angeles controlled by the gang, serving 120 search warrants in 1 day. The operation resulted in several Federal and State prosecutions, the confiscation of 67 firearms and 2,000 rounds of ammunition, and the seizure of 2 kilograms of methamphetamine.

Other initiatives that bring together Federal, State, and local resources and manpower are being tried across the country. Some of these efforts were highlighted in the Attorney General's progress report, including the following:

bullet In Michigan, the Safe Streets-Violent Crime Task Force conducted an investigation of the Home Invaders, a gang that had gained entrance to more than 100 homes in the Detroit area while posing as police officers. Twenty-two members were indicted on charges under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) and Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering statutes and for weapons possession.
bullet In Rhode Island, a Federal and State task force conducted a 21-month investigation of the Latin Kings called Operation Check. The task force, which was sponsored by the ATF, included State and local police, State corrections officers, the Rhode Island National Guard, the FBI, HUD, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The probe led to an 18-count RICO indictment against 11 Latin Kings. Four defendants had pleaded guilty as of September 1996. The rest were awaiting trial.
bullet In New York, a task force composed of the FBI, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, INS, the U.S. attorney's office in Buffalo, the New York State Police, the Erie County Sheriff's Department, the Erie County and Genesee County district attorney's offices, and the police departments of Rochester, Amherst, and Buffalo conducted an 18-month investigation of several drug trafficking organizations and street gangs. Using court-authorized wiretaps, undercover operations, and other investigative techniques, the joint task force probe resulted in the indictment of 71 defendants, including the leader of the Goodyear Crew, a street gang operating in Buffalo. Forty defendants have pleaded guilty, and the rest were awaiting trial, as of September 1996.123

Gang Prosecution

While specialized gang units are common in police departments of cities with gang problems, they are less common in prosecutors' offices. Those that have been established have begun to use a "vertical prosecution" process, whereby one attorney, or a group of attorneys, stays with a case from inception to conclusion. In California, several jurisdictions have combined vertical prosecution strategies with a type of proactive community policing-like prosecution.124

Whereas reactive prosecution means responding to crimes and closed investigations, a prosecutor's office using a proactive, community prosecution strategy attempts to stop the crime before it occurs or at least attempts to participate in the initial investigation. Instances of the former can include using city ordinances to force absentee landlords to clean up, fix up, or close down suspected crack houses. Examples of the latter include going with police to interview victims and witnesses, talking to gang members, and taking steps to protect witnesses. The San Diego County, CA, district attorney's office has a gang unit that has served as a national model for this approach.


94. National Institute of Justice, U.S. Dep't of Justice, Research in Brief, Prosecuting Gangs: A National Assessment 2 (Feb. 1995) [hereinafter Prosecuting Gangs].

95. Arnold Goldstein, Delinquent Gangs: A Psychological Perspective 3­6 (1991).

96. James C. Howell, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Dep't of Justice, Fact Sheet No. 12 at 1 (April 1994) [hereinafter Howell Fact Sheet].

97. Cal. Penal Code § 186.22 (West Supp. 1996).

98. Goldstein, supra note 95, at 22­23.

99. Howell Fact Sheet, supra note 96.

100. National Institute of Justice, U.S. Dep't of Justice, Research in Brief, Estimating the National Scope of Gang Crime from Law Enforcement Data 3 (Aug. 1996).

101. Goldstein, supra note 95, at 22­23.

102. Howell Fact Sheet, supra note 96.

103. Gang Migration, NCJA Justice Research (National Criminal Justice Association, Washington, D.C.), Nov.­Dec. 1995, at 9­10.

104. National Institute of Justice, U.S. Dep't of Justice, Research in Brief, Gang Crime and Law Enforcement Recordkeeping 8­9 (Aug. 1994).

105. Howell Fact Sheet, supra note 96, at 2.

106. National Institute of Justice, U.S. Dep't of Justice, Research in Brief, Street Gangs and Drug Sales in Two Suburban Cities 7 (Sept. 1995).

107. Howell Fact Sheet, supra note 96, at 2.

108. Howell Guide, supra note 32, at 96.

109. U.S. General Accounting Office, Report to the Attorney General, Violent Crime: Federal Law Enforcement Assistance in Fighting Los Angeles Gang Violence 3 (Sept. 1996) [hereinafter GAO, Violent Crime].

110. Attorney General Ryan: State Must Adopt Coordinated Approach to Gang Problem, The Compiler (Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, Chicago, Ill.), Fall 1996, at 14.

111. Donna Lyons, National Conference of State Legislatures, State Legislature Report, 1995 Juvenile Crime and Justice State Enactments 9 (Nov. 1995) [hereinafter Lyons].

112. Cal. Penal Code § 186.22 (West Supp. 1996).

113. Lyons, supra note 111, at 9.

114. National Crime Prevention Council, New Ways of Working with Local Laws to Reduce Crime 41 (Nov. 1996).

115. Id. at 9.

116. Id. at 10.

117. Id. at 42.

118. Id.

119. Id. at 44.

120. Terence Monmaney, Medical Researchers Call Gang Killings 'Epidemic' in County, L.A. Times, Oct. 4, 1995, at B1.

121. Jim Newton, U.S. Mounts Sweeping Crackdown on L.A. Gangs, L.A. Times, July 4, 1992, at A1.

122. GAO, Violent Crime, supra note 109, at 17.

123. U.S. Dep't of Justice, Antiviolent Crime Initiative: The Attorney General's Progress Report to the President 5­10 (Sept. 1996).

124. Prosecuting Gangs, supra note 94, at 5.


Back Contents Next