Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Least surprising news story ever

The Justice Policy Institute has published the results of a study on approaches to gang violence. Their conclusion: social justice is more important than criminal justice in de-escalating the levels of violence in American communities. What a shocker. The Star summarizes the findings:

More police, more prisons and more punitive measures aren't the answer to reducing gang activity, concludes a new U.S. study that experts here say underscores the need for Canada to reject that approach in favour of investing in jobs, schools and programs for disenfranchised youth.

Mass arrests, tougher prison sentences, increased surveillance and staggeringly huge gang databases typify the enforcement approach relied upon to respond to gang violence. These methods are rooted in rational choice theories which hold that if only law enforcers can make the penalties and risks of gang activity sufficiently scary in comparison to the perceived benefits, youth will stop joining gangs. There's a major problem with this trend, and it's that the decision to join a gang is hardly the result of cost-benefit analysis.

While a small proportion of youth will join a gang for protection or excitement, the vast majority report more subtle push factors that incline them to participate. Most youth join because they become connected to gangs through their family members or peer groups. The less connected the youth are to mainstream social institutions such as schools, workplaces and families, the more likely they are to join. This list of risk factors for gang membership shows that academic failure, unemployment, and family break-down consistently make the list across a wide range of studies. Drug use is also a major risk factor, as drug-using peer groups tend to overlap with gang-participating peer groups.

The solution is manifestly not imprisonment. While in jail, about 60% of inmates lose their jobs, another 40% lose touch with their families. Gangs, unlike employers, students, and mothers, are a presence in juvenile incarceration facilities. With their social networks and career prospects damaged by imprisonment, released youth are very likely to be pulled into gang activity once again. This also suggests that imprisoning drug-using youth is a poor approach (and an unfair one, since affluent white kids get an inordinate amount of the court-assigned rehab stints, while working-class minorities see much more of the prison time). More than often, as David Schraub recently noted, prison stints for minor drug offenders only produce especially hardened criminals who will only return to incarceration.

What is needed are better crisis intervention programs for at-risk youth, to connect youth on the edge to positive peer groups and proper educational facilities. Too often though, these development programs are alienating to urban and working-class youth, as they essentially try to integrate those youth into middle-class white peer groups. They also tend to emphasize the criminality and deviance of the community the youth came from (and was heading to), rather than emphasizing the institutional conditions producing these outcomes. A corrective to this would be development programs that are designed for minority and poor youth with a social justice approach to development that emphasize social awareness as well as self awareness in decision-making.

And of course, as the Justice Institute finds, there's no reason we should be worried only once we've identified youth as being at-risk. Stronger schools in low-income communities that try to tackle the cumulative developmental disadvantages of growing up poor (which range from poor nutrition to under-stimulation as a result of parents working long hours), employers that offer reasonable income and hours to poor adolescents, and reforms in both work and welfare that allow parents to spend more time with their children would all go along way to limiting the pull of gangs in low-income communities.

How might we pay for all that? Well, a strong progressive income tax has never hurt anyone. And de-criminalizing marijuana use would free up millions of dollars from enforcement and imprisonment expenditures. In these instances, we almost have the choice to look at a kid and decide if we're going to pay for his classroom or his jail cell.

In the mean time,trying to punish violence after-the-fact with harsh penalties is a no-win strategy. And there is no apparent gain to suppression tactics that use heavy surveillance and intimidation tactics, save to give poor children the experience of living in a police state. A more promising tact is to seek out the sources of violence and marginalization in American life that push so many youth into criminal circles. The war on crime and drugs has only produced what philosopher Brian Barry calls a Black Gulag, a vast and costly system of incarcerated black men as a result of unfair policing and sentencing, not to mention a flagging, underfunded system. of social programs - and which, as the ultimate insult, seems to have failed to significantly reduce crime rates in urban communities. The JPI report reveals disturbing but unsurprising parallels in the fruitless punitive-militarist approaches to gang activity that are too frequently adopted by law enforces. The police war on gangs appears, so far, to have been nothing more than a war on America's poorest youth.

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