Gang Reduction and Prevention Overview Research Paper

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gang development, research and reduction strategies as outlined by Klein and Maxson in their 2006 study Street Gang Patterns and Policies. It incorporates additional research beyond Klein and Maxson, but focuses on the basic analysis of the problem offered in their study. The specific focus of the paper is on finding solutions that work, as distinguished from the numerous failed solutions examined by Klein and Maxson -- with an emphasis on the reasons for failure given in their assessment.

Klein and Maxson's Street Gang Patterns and Policies (2006) offers a sharp critique of existing paradigms of dealing with the problem of street gangs, and in its place offers informed suggestions based on over three decades of research and observation for revising the overall approach to handling this persistent problem. The problem of street gangs is, of course, very old: one of the first-ever sociological studies, written as the discipline of sociology was itself in its infancy, is Frederic Thrasher's The Gang, published in 1927, dealing with gang membership in Chicago (a study that Klein and Maxson pay homage to as the foundation of a discipline). But even that far back, gang violence was hardly a new problem -- indeed historians like Herbert Asbury have detailed gangs that existed in the nineteenth century and earlier in patterns recognizable to sociology and criminology in the twenty-first century. Yet for such a long history, it is worth noting that Klein and Maxson begin with the most basic observation: that gangs are often poorly defined by those who would seek to reduce their activity. As a result, Klein and Maxson begin their study with the most basic and accurate scientific definition they can muster for what constitutes a gang: "any durable, street-oriented youth group whose involvement in illegal activity is part of its group identity" (2006, 4). They then proceed to clarify these terms by noting that durable indicates the persistence of the group despite the turnover in membership, that street-oriented implies that the group meets and spends time together outside home or school, that youth can reach into the 20s and 30s. In this paper I will begin with an overview of gang development, proceed to a discussion of the effectiveness of research, and conclude with gang prevention strategies, basing my analysis primarily on Klein and Maxson's comprehensive 2006 study.


Klein and Maxson are keen at the outset to establish that, while gangs are surely an old phenomenon, there has been a recent explosion in gang related activity in the United States: they offer the shocking statistic of the "growth in gang-involved cities from fewer than 50 prior to 1960 to an estimated high of 3,850 in 1996, which declined to 2,300 in 2002" (2006, 19). The social costs of this proliferation -- not only in terms of lives and property, but also in terms of additional police expenditure and funding for prevention programs, and for state and local responses -- are astronomical.

Klein and Maxson begin with an overview of some basics of gang membership. They note that "males join gangs at higher rates than females" but "females clearly do participate in gangs and should be prominent in any discussion of gang programs and policies" (2006, 34). They also observe that there are "wider ethnic/race differentials in gang joining" where "the rate of white youth participation in gangs is far lower than among black youths, at least one-half and often one-third lower" (2006, 34). They also determine "that the peak age for gang participation is at 14 or 15 is remarkably consistent across self-report studies, regardless of the risk level of the sample, the restrictiveness of gang definition, and the location of the study" (2006, 41). This is the sort of statistical observation that will become important later, because quite obviously -- as Klein and Maxson counsel -- "gang programs and policies should pay close attention to this pattern: vulnerability to joining gangs is highest among youths from 13 to 15 years and decreases thereafter" (2006, 41). This is additionally confirmed by Vigil, who links this vulnerable age group to "the most aggressive and violent behavior among gang members occurs during that adolescent status crisis, between childhood and adulthood" (Vigil 2003, 236) However problems enter the discussion when, as Klein and Maxson note, we must derive our "primary data source" from "law enforcement, rather than youths" themselves (2006, 41). In this case, Klein and Maxson report that "law enforcement figures underestimate young, white, and female gang members" which reflects a problem in the source of the data, deriving from existing patterns of policing and monitoring of gang activity -- even with a focus on prosecutable criminal misconduct, the police data is to a certain extent skewed.

One crucial fact, however, in terms of analyzing even police strategy regarding street gangs is that there are "lower offending patterns among former gang members evident in most studies" (Klein and Maxson 2006, 78). In other words, anyone who has been a part of a gang but then abandons membership in the gang is statistically observable to commit crime at a slightly higher rate than that of peers in the general population, but at a vastly lower rate than if the gang membership had been maintained. This is important because it describes what Klein and Maxson term the "mixed enhancement model" of the interrelation between gang membership and criminality: in other words, the combination of gangs selecting youth who are predisposed to criminality and facilitating the youth's involvement in criminal activity, leading to an overall model which emphasizes the "enhancement" of that youth's capacity for criminal activity which is provided by gang membership (Klein and Maxson 2006, 77). The fuller definition of models for the interrelation between gang membership and criminality is, however, worth quoting in full:

The selection model argues that gangs do not cause delinquency; members bring high offending profiles with them and are in fact recruited for this reason. Offending by gang members would be consistently high before, during, and after active periods of gang participation and higher than among youth who don't join gangs. Alternatively, the social facilitation model posits that gang members' offending profiles are similar to other youth before they join the gang, and it is the gangs' group processes…that elevate criminal activity. When gang members are no longer active, their delinquency patterns should return to nongang rates. The enhancement model predicts that both selection and facilitation are at work: gang members will display higher criminality prior to gang participation, but during the active period, offending patterns will increase substantially. When no longer active, this model suggests that offending would decrease but still remain higher than nongang rates. (Klein and Maxson 2006, 75-6)

In light of the clear statistical result here, in which Klein and Maxson find that it is definitely the mixed enhancement model which is most accurate in terms of actual gang behavior -- and that removal from the group activity vastly lowers rates of criminal offending among individuals -- it becomes obvious that this should be the basis for understanding and dealing with the problem. To assume that only hardened criminals join gangs is already an unwise assumption based on the earlier statistics demonstrating the astonishingly young age at which gang members are ordinarily recruited; yet of course this assumption is the basis for a large number of (largely failed) policing and prevention strategies, which fail to recognize that removal from a gang will actually change the criminal profile of an individual.


As should be clear from the foregoing overview of Klein and Maxson's research into gang development, their analysis has a heavy reliance on all available statistics, with an attempt to scientifically evaluate and correlate the differing results obtained from law enforcement, social science, and indeed from surveys conducted among gang members and youth themselves. However the real value of this research-heavy approach becomes apparent when Klein and Maxson discuss in depth a number of approaches made to handle the gang problem on the large organized scale of law enforcement. With a detailed analysis of at least six programs -- including most notably "G.R.E.A.T." (or "Gang Re-education And Training") and the very well-known "D.A.R.E." ("Drug Awareness, Resistance, and Education") which provided the model for G.R.E.A.T. when both were given widespread federal blessing and financial support in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan -- Klein and Maxson conclude that all of these programs were ultimately substantial failures (2006, 96). The reason for this failure is pretty clear in Klein and Maxson's evaluation: the programs "had failed to arrange for a careful, predesigned or controlled research evaluation" (2006, 97). As a result, the set-ups for the gang-reduction programs evaluated by Klein and Maxson relied substantially on what they describe as "untested assumptions and relatively unchallenged facts that normally take to represent truth" (2006, 90). One example might be glimpsed in the above summary of Klein and Maxson's survey of available research, which is the model applied to determine the…[continue]

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