In 1995, the National Youth Gang Center conducted its first assessment of the national gang problem. The numbers produced by that assessment were larger than those of any prior one-year survey, finding a total of 23,388 youth gangs. A total of 664,906 gang members were reported by 1,499 agencies. Gangs in the new millennium have greater access to automobiles and high-powered firearms than did their predecessors. There is also evidence that gangs are spreading beyond the boundaries of cities and gaining a foothold in suburban and rural communities (Klein 1995).

Responding to Gang-Related Crime and Delinquency

An effective response to gang problems is to address both institutional and community actions that affect the values that are the foundation of the gang. Spergel and Curry (1993) identified five basic gang intervention strategies, based on survey responses from 254 law enforcement and social service agencies. These strategies include suppression, social intervention, organizational change, community mobilization, and social opportunities provision.

1. Suppression strategies respond to the proximate causes of gangs. Suppression includes law enforcement and criminal justice interventions such as arrest, imprisonment, and surveillance. Forty-four percent of the responding agencies reported that suppression was their primary strategy in responding to gangs. To be effective, they must be part of a broader set of responses to the illegal actions of gang members. Cities that follow suppression policies exclusively are likely to be frustrated in their efforts to reduce gang problems.

2. Social intervention approaches focus on emergency interventions, particularly in response to acts of violence or personal crisis. Nearly one-third of cities used social intervention strategies such as crisis intervention, treatment for youths and their families, and social service referrals. A number of studies support the use of crisis intervention and the provision of social services to gang members and their families. Such strategies are proximate, designed to address the needs of a more immediate nature. Gang members frequently are victims of violence or witnesses to a friend’s victimization. The goals for these interventions should be the separation of gang members from at-risk individuals and the provision of mentoring and other social services that extend beyond emergency rooms. Interventions targeted at families are important because of their broad impact.

3. Strategies that concentrate on organizational change require the creation of a broad consensus about gang problems. Typically this occurs through the formation of task forces. Such an approach is targeted at the more immediate causes of gangs and by itself cannot solve gang problems. Organizational change was the next most frequent response. This method was used by 11% of the cities, and typically includes the development of task forces to address gang problems. In general, organizational change will either lead to an awareness of the gang problems in the community and mobilize efforts to address them, or produce a new set of relations among agencies and groups who respond to such problems.

4. Community mobilization is a strategy designed to address the fundamental causes of gangs and gang membership. This strategy coordinates and targets services so that the needs of gang members may be met more effectively. Only 9% of cities selected community mobilization as their modal response to gangs. This strategy was focused on cooperation across agencies and was designed to produce better coordination of existing services.

5. The expansion of job prospects and educational placements is the primary focus of the social opportunities approach. This approach stresses education and job-related interventions, and more than any other strategy responds to the fundamental causes of gang formation and gang membership. Despite this, the smallest number of cities, 5%, reported that the provision of social opportunities was their primary response. These gang intervention efforts incorporate job creation, training and residential placements designed to reshape values, peer commitments, and institutional participation by gang members and those at risk for membership.

Contemporary Responses to Gangs

Gang Legislation

By 1993, fourteen of the fifty states had enacted statutes specifically directed at criminal gang activity. A review conducted by the Institute for Law and Justice (1993) groups gang legislation into two major categories: (1) legislation that provides criminal sanctions for the justice system against offenders in gang-related crimes and (2) legislation that provides civil remedies for the victims of gang crime. Criminal sanction legislation most often enhances sentences for those found guilty of committing a gang-related crime or makes provisions for segregating incarcerated gang members. Civil remedy approaches have most often attempted to empower citizens to file civil suits against gang members collectively or individually. A major impediment to the effectiveness of gang legislation is court rulings that several specific legislative acts violate the First Amendment rights of gang members.

Maxson (1997) provides the only evaluation of the impact of the civil injunction in California. She notes that the long-term impact of this judicial act would be difficult to calculate, even under the best of circumstances.

Federal Policy and Gangs: DHHS’s Youth Gang Drug Prevention Program

In 1988, the Youth Gang Drug Prevention Program was established in the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Applications for funding focused on single-purpose demonstration projects and innovative support programs for at-risk youths and their families. Sixteen consortium projects were funded for three years. In design, these programs constituted a federally initiated, coordinated, and monitored commitment to community organization of strategic responses to gang crime problems. This commitment was on a scale that was historically without precedent. Nine more consortium projects were funded in 1992 with a total of $5.9 million, each for a period of five years for up to $750,000 per year.

The ACYF program also included a number of projects employing social intervention strategies. During the five years of the program, projects provided peer counseling, family education, youth empowerment, mentoring, crisis intervention, community restitution, and recreation. Priority funding areas for the delivery of services also targeted intergenerational gang families, adolescent females, and new immigrant and refugee youth gangs. The national evaluation (Cohen et al. 1995) concluded that while local programs were generally effective in reducing delinquency and drug use among youth participants, the programs were not successful at preventing or reducing gang involvement. In 1995, the gang component of the program came to an end.

OJJDP’s Comprehensive Response to America’s Gang Problem: The Spergel Model

The Spergel model, a direct outgrowth of the earlier work of Spergel and Curry (1993), has become the driving force in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) response to gangs. It is a flexible format for responding to gang problems at the community level. Separate required components focus on community mobilization and employment programs, with one agency acting as the lead or mobilizing agency. In addition, law enforcement plays a central role in this process. Key agencies that must be involved include the police, grassroots neighborhood organizations, and some form of jobs program. The flexibility of the Spergel model encourages local program planners to assess the special features of local gang problems and take advantage of local agency strengths. The guidelines for community mobilization are intended to facilitate interagency cooperation and minimize interagency conflict.

Five demonstration sites received funding from the OJJDP to implement and test the Spergel model in a variety of urban settings with coordinated technical assistance and a systematic evaluation led by Spergel. In the Chicago community of Little Village, Spergel (1994; Spergel and Grossman 1994) has been working with a network of police, outreach youth workers, probation officers, court service workers, and former gang members to reduce violence between two warring coalitions of Latino street gangs. Preliminary evaluation results of this project indicate a reduction in gang-related homicides, increased community organization and mobilization, and the channeling of gang-involved youths into educational programs and jobs.

Safe Futures

As the first few years of the 1990s brought record increases in levels of juvenile violence, the OJJDP became convinced that the problems of serious, violent, and chronic offending and gang-related crime were related. The policy result was the Safe Futures Program. With funding from the OJJDP, Safe Futures programs have been established in four urban sites (Boston; Seattle; Contra Costa County, California; and St. Louis), one rural site (Imperial Valley, California), and one Indian reservation (Fort Belknap, Montana). Funding for Safe Futures projects is larger ($1.4 million per year) and extended over a longer period of time (a five-year commitment) than funding for previous comparable efforts.

Safe Futures programs incorporate specific suppression, opportunities provision, and neighborhood-focused services. As such, they are consistent with the Spergel model and likely to provide a full test of the effectiveness of this model, a model that integrates suppression with community mobilization. It is often difficult to determine the impact of a program, owing to the fact that its implementation often changes substantially from the initial plan. A local evaluation was mandated for each site, and all sites participated in a national evaluation. No final results are available at this time, but it is clear that mounting large-scale interventions designed to change the delivery of services to youths is very difficult. A few sites have struggled with the Spergel model as well as local issues in moving toward implementation. For example, in St. Louis, the Safe Futures site has had difficulty integrating law enforcement—a key component of the model—into service delivery and client identification.

Office of Community Oriented Policing Services: Antigang Initiative

Community-oriented policing represents an even broader federal effort to respond to crime in a way that integrates law enforcement into a cooperative community problem-solving framework. In 1996, the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office in the Justice Department launched a fifteen city antigang initiative. Instead of being selected through a competitive application process, the fifteen cities were selected on the basis of their consistency in providing gang-related crime statistics to the Justice Department surveys described earlier. Eleven million dollars were provided to be spent on community policing efforts, to improve data collection, to integrate law enforcement agencies into community-wide responses to gangs, and to provide a safer setting in which less suppressive response programs can be given a chance to develop.

The program had three specific goals: (1) to develop strategies to reduce gang-related problems, (2) to develop strategies to reduce gang-related drug trafficking problems, and (3) to reduce the fear instilled by gang-related activities. Each jurisdiction was required to develop a formal written characterization of its local gang problem to include the number of gangs, members, age ranges, reasons for joining a gang, source and location of recruitment, location of activities, reasons for migration, and incidents of gang-related crime. It is clear from the sites that completed evaluations that areas of intervention that the police controlled themselves (that is, suppression) generally worked according to plan. However, partnership ventures were considerably more difficult to accomplish. Given the Spergel and Curry insistence on linking suppression and opportunities provision, the likely impact of these efforts is temporary or quite small.

Youth Firearms Violence Initiative

Another COPS response to increased levels of firearm violence among youth was the Youth Firearms Violence Initiative (YFVI). Ten cities were selected to each receive $1 million for a one-year period. The objective of this effort was to reduce violent firearms crime by youth. Departments were to develop innovative programs that enhanced proactive crime control efforts and prevention programs targeted at young persons. These programs were designed specifically to reduce the number of violent firearms crimes committed by youth and reduce the number of firearms-related gang offenses and the number of firearms-related drug offenses. Each participating department was required to develop new initiatives in three areas: (1) innovative strategies or tactics, (2) community policing orientation, and (3) new information systems.

The national evaluation demonstrated the plausibility of the hypothesis that the interventions in most cities were accompanied by reductions in gun offenses. A specific geographic area matched to the program area was chosen for comparison purposes and gun offenses were tracked by week for the two-year period prior to YFVI efforts and the one-year period after the program. In each of the five impact evaluation sites, the decline in gun offenses per week was greater than for the comparison area. In almost every case, YFVI was strictly a suppression program; only rarely did it effectively integrate the activities of social service or prevention activities.

The Boston Gun Suppression Project

Perhaps no single intervention in the 1990s has received as much public attention as the Boston Gun Suppression Project (Kennedy, Piehl, and Braga 1996; Boston Police Department and Partners 1997). Also known as Ceasefire, this project has been replicated in a number of cities across the country, including Minneapolis where it has been carefully evaluated (Kennedy and Braga 1998). At its heart, Ceasefire employs the SARA problem-solving model—scanning, analysis, response, and assessment—to assess youth violence. The apparent success of this intervention rests largely on two features: (1) the careful background work conducted to understand the nature of youth firearms markets and (2) partnerships among the participating groups.

The Boston Gun Suppression Project involves a large interagency working group that consists of representatives from the local police department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the U.S. attorney, the local prosecutor, the departments of probation and parole, city youth outreach workers, the school district, and Kennedy’s research team. Two complementary strategies were developed, one that attempted to disrupt the illegal firearms market on the supply side, and the other targeted at the demand side. The initial evaluations of the Boston Gun Suppression Project have demonstrated that the program achieved its goals of reducing youth homicide in Boston. Youth gun crime, particularly homicide, recorded dramatic declines in Boston, even greater declines than throughout the rest of the nation.

The last decade has produced an unprecedented increase in gangs, gun assaults, and youth homicide. These increases have spurred federal and local governments to action. In the search for appropriate responses to these problems, suppression has been the strategy most likely to be adopted. This makes sense for a variety of political and pragmatic reasons; after all, the police are a visible and generally popular resource in the effort to combat crime. However, such responses are not likely to be successful on their own. When suppression occurs in a vacuum, when it is not accompanied by other more supportive actions, the chances of making lasting changes in gang crime are diminished.


A number of federal initiatives that emphasize suppression or social opportunities provision have been undertaken in the last decade. The COPS office’s anti-gang initiative is a good example of programs that were based almost exclusively on suppression. This is counterbalanced by the effort of DHHS in its Youth Gang Drug Prevention program. This heavily funded federal effort focused exclusively on opportunities provision. Although the evaluation data do not enable a definitive conclusion about the effectiveness of these interventions, it is clear that they have not made substantial inroads into the gang problem in the communities where they were funded because of their failure to implement a balanced response. If there is a single message in this chapter, it is that law enforcement and social opportunities provision must work hand in hand if successful interventions are to be implemented.

Next post:

Previous post: