Friday, September 14, 2007

Youth Gangs: Social Capital v.Poltical Capital

While reliable statistics are difficult to come by concerning the extent of juvenile "gang" activity in the U.S. (Justice Department estimates suggest approximately 20,000-25,000 gangs, operating in more than 3000 jurisdictions, with a total number of @750,000 gang members), we do know that most states since the early 1990's have adopted sweeping, "hard-line" laws designed to imprison and eradicate youths who are suspected of being involved in gang activity.

This article offers a somewhat refreshing antidote, however, to the "get tuff" response of the 1990's and outlines what some major cities and jurisdictions are doing today in response to the problem of gangs by investing in "social capital" programs.

"A growing number of law enforcement officials, including some in Los Angeles, suggest that such aggressive suppression tactics may worsen some gang problems by alienating whole groups of people from the police and stocking prisons with thousands of young people, many of whom are transformed into hardened gang members while incarcerated.

"Police in Los Angeles were now focusing more on prevention and intervention before making arrests. Officers conduct more visits to the homes of possible gang members to encourage parents to become involved... and the department has made it easier for youngsters to purge their names from a gang database if they stay out of trouble."

From Boston, to New York, to Texas (with whom one does "not mess"), there is a growing realization that youth-gang intervention programs are far more successful in lowering youth violence than battering rams, racial profiling, and para-military raids in predominantly poor, urban neighborhoods.

But not everywhere, as the story notes (emphasis mine). "The [get] tough approach still has great appeal in many states, especially those where serious gang problems are relatively new. State lawmakers here in North Carolina are working on legislation that would define a gang as any group of three or more people who band together for the “primary purpose” of committing a crime.

“This is organized crime, and just like we had specific laws to target organized crime in trying to break up the mafia, we need laws to break up the gangs,” said Patrick L. McCrory, the mayor of Charlotte. “It’s more than just selling drugs and participating in violence. These are coordinated and strategic acts within a structure, and you have to go after that structure.”

The alarm and hysteria that first surfaces when gang activity is discovered is understandable (though much of this activity may in fact be "group" rather than "gang" related). But beneath the rhetoric lies an old truism regarding crime and political capital: nothing sells (or earns votes) quite like fear. By comparing a group of street hoodlums to the mafia (or maybe even al-Qaeda) we generate fear amongst the electorate, while routinely bypassing sensible programs designed to actually eliminate the problem before it gets started.

You can see that while investing in programs which build "social capital"is laudatory (and, in fact, seem to be working), they're not nearly as "sexy" as programs that build "political capital" and generate fear. Clearly the very real problem of gang and group criminal activity needs to be addressed in a more balanced and less-heated fashion, which several jurisdictions now seem to be doing.

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