Dealing with Gangs

Published in the Spring 2010 issue of SSA Magazine

Solutions to gang violence are under the microscope to find what works best

How urban gangs get started and how they operate are issues that have been studied from many angles. Now some are saying that to alleviate youth violence and promote neighborhood safety, it's time to subject the solutions to the same scrutiny. "Everyone's concerned about the gang problem, but we don't have clearly good theoretical approaches and model designs beyond 'let's march on the kids' or 'let's prevent them [from committing violent crime],'" says SSA's George Herbert Jones Professor Emeritus Irving Spergel.

Spergel has been a leading thinker and program designer and evaluator on gang issues for more than 40 years, honored at SSA in 2006 with a festschrift conference that brought together well-established gang researchers and a new generation. Robert Chaskin, an associate professor at SSA, has edited a new book made up primarily of papers delivered at that event. Youth Gangs and Community Intervention: Research, Practice and Evidence gives insight into the leading edge of contemporary research on gang problems.

"We need to strengthen the relationship between the theories that inform gang intervention, the research evidence about those theories and the interventions themselves, so that we have a better sense of what works," Chaskin says.

A major theme running through Youth Gangs and Community Intervention is the clear and continual tension between those who favor police responses and those who urge more developmental prevention and intervention approaches. These biases tend to be baked into solutions advanced by law enforcement, youth workers and other actors. For example, George Tita of University of California-Irvine and Andrew Papachristos of University of Massachusetts-Amherst examine the rise, fall and re-introduction of the detached street worker, an idea that has returned to new prominence in modern-day Ceasefire projects. Tita and Papachristos claim that Ceasefire is part of an effective hybrid model that blends both prevention and suppression.

Spergel's own anti-gang model is predicated on a mix of social intervention, police suppression, youth outreach and other factors. Although it has been adopted around the country, he says he's glad that it is being thoroughly tested by federal agencies. "My view finally after all these years," he says, "is we aren't going to make much progress until we figure out what works."

— Gordon Mayer