Intervention Programs

Intervention programs seek to reduce the criminal activities of gangs by coaxing youth away from gangs and reducing criminality among gang members. These programs, examples of which follow, provide alternative opportunities for youth and apply rehabilitation measures.

Detached Worker Programs

A significant shift in youth gang program approaches, from prevention by means of community organization to interventions relying almost exclusively on detached workers, occurred in the 1940's with the establishment of the New York City Youth Board (1960). Created to combat the city's growing number of fighting gangs, this city-run program relied on detached workers to transform youth gangs from fighting groups into prosocial ones. Most of the transformation was to be accomplished in the streets where gangs met, played, and hung out. Worker activities included securing health care for gang members, providing employment counseling, doing advocacy work with the police and courts, and taking almost any other action that might transform gang values or lure juveniles away from them (Geis, 1965). Although the program was never evaluated, it served as a forerunner of later detached worker programs.

The Boston detached worker program, a communitywide project, consisted of three major program components: community organization, family service, and gang work. For 3 years, staff in the Midcity Project—established in the Roxbury section of Boston in 1954—worked with 400 members of 21 street corner gangs. In perhaps the most rigorous gang program evaluation ever conducted (Miller, 1962), the project proved to be ineffective.

Evaluation of a California detached worker program brought into even more serious question the value of this approach (Klein, 1971, 1995a). The Group Guidance Project, begun in the 1940's by the Los Angeles Probation Department, employed group guidance by street workers in an attempt to intervene in the emergence of African American gangs in South Central Los Angeles. Group activities, including weekly club meetings, sports activities, tutoring, individual counseling, and advocacy with community agencies and organizations, were designed to reunite gang members with their community institutions. Klein (1995a:145) concluded that "increased group programming leads to increased cohesiveness (in both gang growth and gang ‘tightness'), and increased cohesiveness leads to increased gang crime." Based on these results, Klein has repeatedly warned practitioners against any activities that might contribute to gang cohesion, because these might increase gang delinquency (Klein, 1995a).

Warning Signs

Identifying bona fide gangs is a difficult task. It is important for communities to recognize the warning signs of a gang problem. Trump (1998) lists the following gang identifiers for use by schools:

  • Graffiti. Unusual signs, symbols, or writing on walls, notebooks, class assignments, or gang "literature" books.

  • Colors. Obvious or subtle colors of clothing, a particular clothing brand, bandannas, jewelry, or haircuts.

  • Tattoos. Symbols on the body.

  • Initiations. Suspicious bruises, wounds, or injuries resulting from a "jumping in." Gang initiations have taken place in school restrooms, gyms, locker rooms, playgrounds, and even hallways.

  • Hand signs. Unusual hand signals or handshakes.

  • Language. Uncommon terms or phrases.

  • Behavior. Sudden changes in behavior or secret meetings.

It is important to consider multiple factors in assessing whether youth groups are bona fide gangs. Other researchers and organizations have developed similar indicators that can be used in making a determination of gang formation (Curry and Decker, 1998; National Drug Intelligence Center, 1995).

The Ladino Hills Project, created in East Los Angeles in 1967, was an experiment Klein (1968) designed to test his hypothesis that if gang cohesiveness could be reduced through nongroup (i.e., individual) interventions, then gang delinquency would be reduced. Interventions included job training, tutoring, recreation in established agencies, and individual therapy. Klein's evaluation showed that gang cohesiveness was reduced by about 40 percent, and an overall reduction of 35 percent in gang member arrests was observed, although this was attributed mainly to fewer gang members. However, several years later, the gang reassumed its preproject character. Klein (1995a:147) concluded that "we had affected the [gang members] but not their community. The lesson is both obvious and important. Gangs are byproducts of their communities: They cannot long be controlled by attacks on symptoms alone; community structure and capacity must also be targeted."

Although researchers disagree about the effectiveness of detached worker programs (Bursik and Grasmick, 1993; Goldstein and Glick, 1994), it must be concluded that, as a singular intervention, detached workers have not conclusively produced positive results. Numerous reasons have been offered to account for the lack of effectiveness of this strategy. Klein (1971; see also Spergel, 1966) suggested that it was unclear whether these programs were designed to control gangs, treat gang members' personality problems, provide access to social and cultural opportunities, transform values, or prevent delinquency. Conflicting program objectives made evaluation difficult.

Crisis Intervention

In the next "era" of youth gang programming, detached workers were put in vehicles and sent to "hotspots" of gang activity. Philadelphia's Crisis Intervention Network (CIN), established in 1974, pioneered the assignment of gang workers to work in specific areas rather than with specific gangs. They were to patrol hotspots in radio-dispatched cars, attempting to defuse potentially violent situations. Although CIN was not evaluated, it was declared a success by CIN officials, a claim that has been subject to challenge (Klein, 1995a; Needle and Stapleton, 1983; Spergel, 1995).

Despite doubts about the success of Philadelphia's CIN, the program was transplanted to Los Angeles (beginning in 1980–81) and named the Community Youth Gang Services (CYGS) program. Like CIN, CYGS used suppression tactics (e.g., dispatching patrol teams in specially marked cars), social intervention efforts, group programming and outings for gang members, and truce meetings (Klein, 1995a). According to Klein, implementation of the program was not successful.

Spergel (1986) evaluated the Crisis Intervention Services Project (see also Ribisl and Davidson, 1993), which was implemented in the mid-1980's in a gang-ridden section of Chicago. Spergel (1995:255) described the program as a "mixed social intervention or crisis intervention approach, with strong deterrent and community involvement characteristics." Staff patrolled areas where gang violence was likely to erupt during evening and late-night hours, attempting to mediate conflicts. Intensive counseling was provided to gang youth referred by the juvenile court and to their families. Local neighborhood groups were mobilized and involved in the project. Spergel's evaluation (1986) showed that the program appeared to reduce the most serious and violent crimes, but not overall crime levels. Nevertheless, these were the most encouraging gang intervention results up to that time.

Crisis intervention programming as a singular approach using detached workers in an attempt to defuse gang conflicts does not have a stellar performance record. Spergel (1995) contended that a detached worker strategy by itself is inadequate to deal with complex challenges such as remedial education, job preparation and development, and community issues. Thus, the detached worker concept has been expanded over the past 30 years to incorporate other roles (Spergel and Curry, 1990). Most recently, in the Little Village Gang Violence Reduction Program, detached workers were redefined as "community youth workers," who "not only had to develop new quasi-professional skills related to referrals of gang youths to agency services or job placement, but [who] also had to learn to collaborate with police and probation officers in such a way that gang conflict was prevented or at least controlled" (Spergel and Grossman, 1997:462). This broader role appeared to contribute significantly to an overall coordinated program approach (see the Gang Violence Reduction Program for further information on this project).

Boys & Girls Clubs

In addition to the Gang Prevention Through Targeted Outreach program described on pages 12-13, Boys & Girls Clubs of America supports another youth gang program. Comin' Up, located in Fort Worth, TX, is a youth gang intervention program developed out of training provided by Boys & Girls Clubs (Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Fort Worth, 1996; City of Fort Worth, 1996) and is based on a Boys & Girls Clubs' gang intervention strategy. All program youth are identified gang members. Needs assessments are made on all referrals by a team comprising project staff, school officials, parents, police, probation officers, and others. In addition to providing alternatives to gang life (especially education and employment) and providing life-skills development, the program works to establish truces among rival gangs and to reduce the incidence of gang violence. One of the program's unique features is the employment of successful clients as outreach workers. Criminal arrest data reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) indicate a significant decrease in violence in the area served by the project (Parks and Community Services Department, 1997). The program has not yet received an independent evaluation.

Improving Conditions

Homeboy Industries and Jobs for a Future—grassroots projects supported by the Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, CA (Gaouette, 1997)—provide alternatives to gang life for gang members: jobs that can give them an escape from gangs. Jobs for a Future places some 200 gang members in jobs in the community each year. Homeboy Industries merchandises T-shirts and silkscreens and operates Homeboy Bakeries, which sells baked bread to a commercial baker. Both enterprises successfully employ rival gang members. Proceeds from these ventures fund a daycare center, a homeless shelter, an alternative school for gang members, and a tattoo-removal service.

Providing jobs appears to be an effective intervention. In a survey of incarcerated adolescent and adult gang members across the country, Houston (1996) found that gang members viewed job training and jobs positively. Huff's (1998) study revealed that many gang members and nongang at-risk youth who sell drugs would give up selling for reasonable wages (less than $15 per hour), and many indicated that "they would accept far lower wages—not much more than is currently being paid in fast-food restaurants—if they could obtain a sufficient number of hours per week" (Huff, 1998:7). NCNE (1999:62) contends that "the belief that young people will not accept an entry-level job is a false and debilitating myth." Moore and Vigil (1993:43) reported that job programs in East Los Angeles gang areas that were provided in the 1960's through the war on poverty "without question" reduced gang violence. Once the programs were dismantled, gang violence increased. In his Kansas City study of "dead-end" gang members, Fleisher (1998:214) concluded that the "unlawful-to-lawful shift in income production . . . results in less crime and less serious crime." This conclusion is supported by a detailed review of programs for serious and violent juvenile offenders. Lipsey and Wilson (1998) found that paid employment reduces recidivism among offenders who are not incarcerated.

Violence-Free Zones

NCNE has developed Violence-Free Zones, a grassroots community intervention for youth and gang-related violence. The Violence-Free Zone model is based on the premise that the breakdown of the family structure is a key risk factor for gang involvement and a major contributor to destructive behavior. In many cases, gang members come from fatherless homes in which mothers struggle to meet the economic and individual needs of their children. Consequently, they find it difficult to provide the necessary guidance. Violence-Free Zone implementers fill this void, taking on the role of mentor and engaging in reparenting. Job training and work opportunities also are provided for youth's social, personal, and economic development to help them make the transition from gang life and criminality to violence-free lives and productive citizenship. Successful youth are given the opportunity to collaborate with youth in other communities and cities to develop and expand Violence-Free Zones.

Social Intervention

Fleisher's (1998) study of the two most notorious gangs in Kansas City, MO (the Fremont Hustlers and Northeast Gangsters), provided the basis for his proposed program solution for gang-involved youth: if gang members can be shifted from unlawful to lawful income production, they will eventually experience an underlying moral shift in lifestyle orientations.

Gang life is predicated on immediate economic gain from drug and other crime profits and social gain from the agency of rulelessness. Mainstream life is oriented toward the future, and social and material gains are slower but steadier, more reliable, and less risky. . . . [S]uccessful gang intervention depends on offering gang kids the unlawful-to-lawful socioeconomic trade by showing them exactly what they have to gain. . . . The answer is simple: immediate material gain, including money, food, clothes, and shelter. Improvements these kids can see, touch and possess will pull them off the streets (Fleisher, 1998:214–215).

"Gangs like the Fremont Hustlers and Northeast Gangsters are monuments to economic failure in households, neighborhoods, and communities," but community development projects are needed that make sense to neighborhood residents (Fleisher, 1998:208).

Fleisher proposes a social intervention approach modeled after OJJDP's Comprehensive, Community-Wide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression model. He (1998:211) suggests that there is "a discontinuity between the actual problems in gang-affiliated adolescents' lives and the remedies offered by social and law enforcement agencies. Simply put, the local juvenile justice system doesn't give [gang] kids what they need . . . when they need it." Moreover, he argues, social service or law enforcement agencies "cannot intervene effectively in socioeconomic processes embedded in a family's transgenerational history." The program needs of gang girls are particularly acute. Fleisher therefore suggests creation of adult-supervised residential centers for adolescent girls who are affiliated with gangs. These centers would focus on three specific objectives: "(1) to shelter and protect girls; (2) to provide education, job training, and job placement; and (3) to ensure a healthy start for gang girls' children" (Fleisher, 1998:219; see pages 218–225 for detailed descriptions of how the centers could be designed to achieve these objectives). These residential centers should be located outside high-crime inner cities but close to high schools, community colleges, and jobs. Such decentralized centers would have advantages for gang youth over traditional centralized service delivery systems: "[C]entralized services are ineffective with gang kids, because they don't have cars to go downtown; they don't take buses; they don't go" (Fleisher, 1998:210).

This replicable model is based on the House of Umoja program and the success of similarly designed neighborhood initiatives in other cities (National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, 1999). In Washington, DC, the faith-based Alliance for Concerned Men, a grassroots organization, was instrumental in establishing a Violence-Free Zone in the Benning Terrace public housing project with assistance from NCNE and the DC Housing Authority. Each of these three components contributed to the effort—NCNE provided technical assistance; the alliance carried out grassroots intervention in gang conflicts; and the Housing Authority provided job opportunities such as refurbishing the neighborhood, removing graffiti, and landscaping. Together they constitute the necessary structure for implementing a Violence-Free Zone. HUD and OJJDP are supporting the establishment of Violence-Free Zones in cities such as Dallas, TX; Indianapolis, IN; and Los Angeles, CA.

In 1998, NCNE convened representatives of successful grassroots initiatives to identify effective strategies and key elements of community-centered approaches. Entitled "best practices," these are described in detail in an NCNE (1999) publication, which also outlines practical steps in implementing the Violence-Free Zone model, under the following headings:

  • Agents of effective youth intervention.

  • Methods of intervention.

  • Attitudes and premises of successful outreach.

  • Collaborative efforts and sustainable youth intervention: the role of the public sector, private sector, and mutual support.

Gang Summits and Truces

Preventing gang wars by means of truces is an intervention that has not been systematically evaluated. Reports indicate that some truces have been successful but others have failed (Spergel, 1995). Gang homicides in Los Angeles were said to have dropped in 1994, presumably because of a truce between warring African American gangs that began in 1992 (Cotton, 1992). Klein (1995a) noted numerous instances in which adult-sponsored truce meetings backfired, reinforcing rivalries, increasing gang cohesion, and solidifying gang leadership.

Gang summits and truces negotiated by local residents may be more effective than those brought about in other ways. In the District of Columbia, members of the Alliance for Concerned Men negotiated a truce among warring gangs that had been terrorizing Benning Terrace. In January 1997, with the help of NCNE (1999), which assisted in strategic planning and provided a neutral meeting location, the alliance stepped in after a period of escalating violence. Six homicides had occurred in Benning Terrace in 1996. Following the alliance's intervention, there were no homicides from January 1997 to August 1998 (National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, 1999).

Emergency Room Intervention and Victim Programs

The hospital emergency room is a promising arena for intervening in gang violence, including homicide.8 Hutson and colleagues (1995) suggest that an emergency room intervention program for injured victims could help to break the cycle of gang violence. Others have proposed counseling for victims of drive-by shootings to reduce the traumatic effects of victimization and discourage retaliation (Groves et al., 1993; Hutson, Anglin, and Pratts, 1994; Pynoos and Nader, 1988). One example of an emergency room program, the Partnership for a Safer Cleveland, provides gang recognition seminars for hospital emergency room staff. As a result, gang-involved youth are referred elsewhere for medical and psychological services (Walker and Schmidt, 1996).

Teens on Target (TNT), administered by Youth Alive!, nonprofit agency in Oakland, CA, seeks to reduce youth injuries and death from gang-related and other gun violence through peer education, intervention, mentoring, and leadership development (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). TNT leaders—many of them violence victims—developed a training curriculum to address the relationship between violence and family contexts, guns, gangs, and drugs; the causes and effects of violence; and advocacy skills necessary to stop such violence. The leaders conduct student workshops, mediate conflicts between rival racial groups, and run a peer visitation program for hospitalized adolescents recovering from serious injuries to dissuade them and their friends from retaliation. A sister initiative operates in Los Angeles, CA. Together, the two TNT programs have won many awards for their work, including the California Peace Prize.

Intervention with victims of gang violence can also be accomplished outside hospital emergency rooms. The Child Development-Community Policing (CD–CP) model in New Haven, CT, is an excellent example (see Marans and Berkman, 1997). In this program, police refer victims of violent crimes, including victims of gang violence, to the CD–CP program for counseling. The Gang Victim Services Program, Orange County, CA, offers a full range of services and multilingual, multicultural support (Office for Victims of Crime, 1996). It also is important to protect victims and witnesses from gang intimidation (see Finn and Healey, 1996, for procedures and protections). Gang intimidation is but one problem that Miethe and McCorkle (1997a) found among many obstacles to effective prosecution of gang members in Las Vegas, NV.

Gang Members in Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities

Confinement in a juvenile correctional facility is a strong predictor of adult prison gang membership (Ralph et al., 1996). Prison gang members, in turn, contribute to the growth of youth gangs. In Chicago, prison gangs were said to exert considerable control over and have influence on street gangs (Decker, Bynum, and Weisel, 1998). "Prison gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia, and Texas Syndicate originated in prison and now have members on the street. Conversely, most street gangs now have members in prison" (Fleisher, 1995:131). In some cities, local gang activity is being orchestrated from the prisons (National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, 1999). This development makes intervention in the resulting stronger "new breed of gangs" all the more difficult. Older gang members from juvenile correctional facilities and prisons who return to the street "align with neighborhood teenage gang members who are on the street, and form a larger, potentially more dangerous street gang" (Fleisher, 1995:152). Involvement of ex-convicts in youth gangs increases the life of the gangs and their level of violent crime, in part because of ex-convicts' increased proclivity to violence following imprisonment and the visibility and history they contribute to youth gangs (Moore, 1978).

Little treatment programming has been developed for gang members in juvenile detention and correctional facilities. Interpersonal skills training appears promising for improving social skills and reducing anger and, possibly, violence among street gang youth in institutionalized populations (Goldstein, 1993). The Aggression Replacement Training (ART) model teaches gang members anger control and other skills and has produced promising results with gangs in Brooklyn, NY, communities (Goldstein and Glick, 1994; Goldstein, Glick, and Gibbs, 1998). The model is being implemented in probation departments and detention centers in 28 counties throughout the State of Washington, in a number of juvenile institutions in the State of New York, and in the Texas Department of Youth (corrections). ART also has been used in community-based programs, such as the Mesa Gang Intervention Project.

A variety of gang awareness curriculums are used to help youth avoid gang involvement while they are incarcerated. One of these, Gang Awareness Necessary for Growth in Society, is used in California Youth Authority facilities (Duxbury, 1993). This curriculum has several elements: orientation; program overview; parole and the gang-active person; effects of gang violence; legal aspects of gang involvement; coping, responsibility, and accountability; and family, community, peer, cultural, and individual expectations.

Gang problems, correctional agencies' use of risk and needs assessments, and specialized programs to address gang problems in juvenile detention and correctional facilities are being assessed in an OJJDP-funded national survey conducted by the National Juvenile Detention Association. The initial report based on this survey (Howell et al., in press) covers gang problems and interventions in detention centers. Nearly 9 in 10 detention centers reported gang members among their residents. Almost half of the detention centers said that one-third or more of their inmates belonged to a gang. Slightly more than half of the detention centers reported gang-related assaults, almost half reported problems with gangs recruiting members, nearly one-third reported threats or intimidation of staff, and one-fourth reported threats or intimidation of nongang members.

Fifteen percent of the detention centers that were surveyed reported that they used no assessment procedures to identify gang members. Less than 2 percent performed a formal risk assessment, screened for classification, or used formal procedures for determination and management of security risk groups. Just 1 in 10 detention centers reported gearing certain programs toward gang members. Slightly more than 2 in 10 centers provided aftercare monitoring and support services for gang members. Aftercare is very important because of the high likelihood that these youth will return to active gang involvement in their communities, perhaps with their reputations enhanced by having served time in confinement.

Few of the programs geared toward gang members were deemed effective. On average, only 14 percent of respondents rated their programs "very effective" and less than half rated them "somewhat effective." The most promising programs emphasized correction of educational deficiencies, vocational skills development (apprenticeships), drug abuse/use values and behavior change and treatment, and interpersonal and social skills development.

To deal more effectively with gang problems in facilities, juvenile detention and correctional facilities need to use risk assessments at intake, identify gang members, and properly classify offenders for security purposes. Better screening and risk classification of gang members would help protect staff and fellow inmates by giving correctional staff reliable information to classify gang members. Similarly, to achieve the best match between their treatment needs and available interventions, needs assessments should be made for all inmates. Finally, more program development is needed to prevent gang formation, help separate offenders from gangs, diminish the effectiveness of their recruitment efforts in detention centers, and prevent and reduce victimization of staff and fellow inmates. Progress in these areas should help break the cycle of gang members moving from detention centers and correctional facilities to prisons to communities.

In an earlier review of correctional programs for gang members, Duxbury (1993) made the following recommendations:

  • Correctional policies and programs directed toward youth gangs and gang members should be coordinated with those of organizations engaged in prevention and suppression within a community or governmental jurisdiction.

  • More systematic research should be conducted on correctional interventions with youth gang members.

  • Individual correctional interventions should be based on objective classification of the gang members' risks and needs, including those related to gang participation.

  • Institutional policies should create a climate in which youth feel sufficient safety to relinquish or refuse gang membership.

  • Institutional programs should offer youth opportunities to develop their skills and knowledge so that, upon release, they will have the tools and self-esteem to choose activities other than illegal gang activities.

  • Field supervision programs (parole/aftercare) should provide transitional services and, when appropriate, adequate surveillance to increase the likelihood that the released youth will make socially responsible choices.

One aftercare program for high-risk juveniles has been shown to produce very positive short-term effects (Josi and Sechrest, 1999). The Lifeskills '95 program, in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, CA, serves youthful offenders released from the California Youth Authority. In addition to other impressive results, Lifeskills '95 reduced frequent gang contact. Only 8 percent of the Lifeskills '95 youth had frequent gang contact (versus 27 percent for the control group).

8 See Howell, 1998a:308–310, for a comprehensive approach to preventing and reducing gang homicide that integrates several program components.


Youth Gang Programs and Strategies
OJJDP Summary
August 2000