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Assessment of Youth Gang Programs

In 1988, with OJJDP support, Spergel and his colleagues conducted a nationwide assessment of youth gang prevention, intervention, and suppression programs (Spergel, 1995; Spergel and Curry, 1993; Spergel, Curry, et al., 1994). The assessment included a survey of 254 respondents in 45 communities and 6 special program sites regarding strategies they employed and their perception of which were the most effective. All surveyed sites had youth gang problems and organized responses to those problems. Responses were categorized into the major program types that Spergel (1991) identified in a literature review of gang programs: community organization, social intervention, provision of opportunities, and suppression. The survey team added a fifth response category: organizational change and development.

Suppression was the most frequently employed strategy (44 percent), followed by social intervention (31 percent), organizational change and development (11 percent), community organization (9 percent), and provision of opportunities (5 percent). Survey respondents believed different approaches were effective in chronic (longstanding) versus emerging (more recent) gang problem cities (Spergel and Curry, 1990, 1993). Provision of social opportunities24 was perceived to be more effective in sites with chronic gang problems. Community organization (mobilization)25 was believed to be an effective strategy, but only when social opportunities were also provided. In contrast, respondents in cities with emerging gang problems saw community organization (mobilization) as the most effective strategy. Overall, respondents were not confident that their antigang efforts were particularly effective in reducing gang problems. Only 23 percent of the police and 10 percent of all other respondents believed their community's gang situation improved between 1980 and 1987. By 1998, the National Youth Gang Survey revealed a more optimistic view among law enforcement agencies (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Law Enforcement Agencies' Perception of Youth
Gang Problems, 1998

Figure 2
              Source: Moore and Cook, 1999.


Assessments of gang programs by law enforcement agencies show that suppression programs remain very popular, but that other approaches are gaining acceptance. In the course of a national gang migration study (Maxson, Woods, and Klein, 1995), respondents in about one-fourth of the 211 cities surveyed were asked to assess the use and effectiveness of several gang policies and practices in reducing the volume or negative impact of gang migrants on their cities (see table 3). Most respondents said coordination with Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies was relatively common, but few law enforcement officers viewed this as effective in reducing gang migration or illegal activities. Three-fourths of the surveyed departments targeted violations of selected laws (e.g., narcotics laws), but only 42 percent of them viewed this strategy as effective. Enforcement of specific gang laws (e.g., the Street Terrorism Enforcement Act) was not viewed as a particularly effective response. About 40 percent of the surveyed law enforcement agencies used gang sweeps and other suppression strategies (44 percent), which were said to be effective by a majority of officers. Almost two-thirds of the surveyed cities employed community collaboration strategies, and more than half (54 percent) believed these to be effective. In sum, the strategies perceived to be effective by a majority of law enforcement respondents were community collaboration (information exchange or gang awareness education) (54 percent), crime prevention activities (56 percent), and street sweeps (62 percent) or other suppression tactics (63 percent).

Table 3. Law Enforcement Strategies and Perceived Effectiveness*

Strategy UsedJudged Effective (if used)
Some or a lot of use

   Targeting entry points
   Gang laws
   Selected violations
   Out-of-State information exchange
   In-State information exchange
   In-city information exchange
   Federal agency operational coordination
   State agency operational coordination
   Local agency operational coordination
   Community collaboration

Any use

   Street sweeps
   Other suppression tactics
   Crime prevention activities
 

   14%
40
76
53
90
55
40
50
78
64

 

   40%
44
15

 

   17%
19
42
16
17
18
16
13
16
54

 

   62%
63
56

* Percentage of cities, n=211. The number of cities responding to each question varied slightly.
Source: Maxson, Woods, and Klein, 1995.


In addition to conducting a survey, Spergel and colleagues reviewed gang research on a variety of topics, including definitions, the nature and causes of the gang phenomenon, and the effectiveness of program strategies used by various agencies and organizations in communities. Although conclusive evaluations of these strategies are still needed, the following common elements appear to be associated with a sustained reduction of gang problems:

  • Community leaders recognize the presence of gangs and seek to understand the nature and extent of the local gang problem through a comprehensive and systematic assessment of the gang problem.

  • The combined leadership of the justice system and the community focuses on the mobilization of institutional and community resources to address gang problems.

  • Those in principal roles develop a consensus—based on problem assessment rather than assumptions—on definitions (e.g., gang, gang incident), specific targets of agency and interagency efforts, and interrelated strategies. Prevention and intervention efforts are focused on the population and/or community areas in which youth are at greatest risk for gang membership and gang violence.

Recent characterizations of gangs and gang members in the National Youth Gang Survey and other studies (Howell, 2000) suggest that jurisdictions need to assess very carefully their particular youth gang problem. Different data sources on gangs and gang members may produce a different view of the same gang phenomenon.

Unfortunately, the link between self-reported gang involvement (using student surveys) and gang membership indicated in police arrest data has not been clear. Curry (in press) analyzed this link. He used self-report survey measures of gang involvement for a population of at-risk Chicago youth in sixth through eighth grades and delinquency and police records (covering a 5-year period) to examine the relationship between self-report survey measures in early adolescence and subsequent police-recorded delinquency and gang involvement. Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of the sixth through eighth graders self-reported some level of gang involvement. Among self-reported gang-involved youth, 51 percent were identified by the police as offenders in at least one delinquent incident, and 20 percent were identified by police as gang-related offenders. Among self-identified gang-involved youth who also were self-identified delinquents, 51 percent were identified as offenders by police in at least one delinquent incident, and 27 percent were identified by police as gang-related offenders. Conversely, of the 94 police-identified gang offenders, 56 percent were self-identified as gang involved and delinquent in the middle school survey. Thus, the gang problem as it existed among the 429 Chicago middle-schoolers was continuous over time. Remarkably, the 189 official delinquent offenders (i.e., those who were arrested for their offenses) (41 percent of the total) accounted for 72 percent of the total offenses among the 429 youth. More than half (56 percent) of these offenders were identified by police as gang members, and they represented 22 percent of those who self-reported gang involvement.

Curry produced sound evidence that survey research and analysis of official records can be used to examine different parts of a comprehensive community gang problem that may indeed merit comprehensive communitywide response strategies. He concluded that although survey responses and official data sources do not perfectly coincide, together they can enhance researchers' understanding of gang activity. He strongly suggests that gangs and gang members profiled in student surveys do not represent a gang problem separate from the one indicated by law enforcement data. Indeed, cumulative arrest data would tend to profile mainly older, multiple-year gang members (see Battin-Pearson et al., 1999). These findings support the potential effectiveness of comprehensive community responses to gang crime problems that link prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies. Prevention programs could target at-risk youth (using self-reports), early intervention programs could target youth in the early stages of gang involvement (using self-reports and official records), and suppression strategies could target serious, violent, and chronic offenders who are gang-involved (using official records).

Any approach must be guided by concern not only for safeguarding the community against gang crime, but for providing support and supervision to present and potential gang members in a way that contributes to their prosocial development (Spergel, Curry et al., 1994; see also Burch and Chemers, 1997).


24 This includes job preparation, training, placement, and development and assistance with school problems, tutoring, and education of youth gang members.

25 This includes involvement of local citizens, including former gang youth and current gang influentials, community groups, and agencies and coordination of programs and staff functions across agencies.

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Youth Gang Programs and Strategies
OJJDP Summary
August 2000