Ganging Up

Gang violence KO'd


Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) recently introduced legislation to combat gang violence. The bills create new federal crimes and sentences, fund a national gang database, and appropriate $700 million for gang suppression efforts. But these tactics have been in place for years in gang-plagued cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, and a new study by the Justice Policy Institute concludes they aren't working.

"More police, more prisons and more punitive measures haven't stopped the cycle of gang violence," the institute reports, and "heavy-handed suppression tactics can increase gang cohesion while failing to reduce violence." The study bucks conventional wisdom about the gang threat, reporting that gang activity in the U.S is declining, that most gang members quit gang life by the time they reach adulthood, and that gangs are responsible for a fairly low percentage of violent crime. (According to the authors, less than 10 percent of all crime in the U.S. is gang-related, though it can vary widely in different parts of the country.) It contrasts the aggressive, enforcement-based anti-gang efforts of Chicago and Los Angeles with the approach taken in New York City, which is less punitive and less expensive, using programs that focus on counseling, social work, and alternative activities.

There's some discrepancy in the data on whether gang crime is on the rise or the wane in New York City. The authors cite numbers from the New York mayor's office showing that gang-related crime fell about 30 percent from 2004 to 2006, while a U.S. Department of Justice report from June 2007 cites data from the New York Police Department showing a 47 percent increase. The discongruity may be attributable to differing definitions of what's "gang-related." For example, some observers might count a crime committed by a member of a gang that isn't directly tied to official gang activity as "gang-related." Others might not.

Either way, gang crime there is significantly less common than in other cities. Over the last three years, according to the Justice Policy Institute study, New York has averaged around 500 gang-related crimes per year; the police department's figures aren't much higher. Over the same period in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, the total was 7,000 to 8,000 per year.