The literature and programs reviewed for this Summary (including sources in table 1) suggest the following principles for effective youth gang programs and strategies:

  • Both denial of gang problems and overreaction to them are detrimental to the development of effective community responses to gangs. Denial that gang problems exist precludes early intervention efforts. Overreaction in the form of excessive police force and publicizing of gangs may inadvertently serve to increase a gang’s cohesion, facilitate its expansion, and lead to more crime.

  • Community responses to gangs must begin with a thorough assessment of the specific characteristics of the gangs themselves, crimes they commit, other problems they present, and localities they affect. To conduct a thorough assessment, communities should look at community perceptions and available data. Data from law enforcement sources such as local gang and general crime data are critical. Other data should be collected from probation officers, schools, community-based youth agencies, prosecutors, and community residents. No assumptions about presumed gang problems or needed responses should be made before conducting a careful assessment.

  • Because gang problems vary from one community to another, police, courts, corrections, and community agencies often need assistance from gang experts in assessing their gang problem(s) and in developing appropriate and measured responses.

  • Law enforcement agents view suppression tactics (e.g., street sweeps, intensified surveillance, hotspot targeting, and caravanning), crime prevention activities, and community collaboration—in that order—as most effective in preventing and controlling gang crime. Targeting specific gang crimes, locations, gangs, and gang members appears to be the most effective suppression tactic; therefore, police increasingly adhere to the mantra: "Investigate the crime; not the culture."27

  • Long-term proactive investigations of entire gangs are more effective than short-term, reactive investigations of individual gang members. According to Jackson and McBride (1985:28), "Gang crimes are viewed by specialists as more dangerous than other crimes because they are not isolated acts, but links in a chain of events that must be broken."

  • Each city’s gang program should be supported by a gang information system that provides sound and current crime incident data that can be linked to gang members and used to enhance police and other agency interventions. At a minimum, law enforcement agencies must ensure that gang crimes are coded separately from nongang crimes so that these events can be tracked, studied, and analyzed to support more efficient and effective antigang strategies.

  • The success of the Gang Violence Reduction Program in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood has demonstrated the effectiveness of multiagency coordination and integration among youth services (including street outreach), police, probation, parole, grassroots organizations, and corrections in controlling and redirecting serious and violent gang members. Preliminary positive results from other multiagency programs provide further encouragement that serious and violent youth gang crime can be controlled, if not reduced. Narrower strategies, such as combining police and probation surveillance, have also shown some promise but have not yet been evaluated rigorously.

  • Systematic assessment of gang problems in the juvenile and criminal justice systems is needed, including the connections between prison gangs and youth gangs. Nearly 9 in 10 juvenile detention facilities have gang members among their residents (Howell et al., in press), yet few detention centers and juvenile correctional facilities screen admissions for gang involvement. The same can be said for the criminal justice system, with the exception of scant knowledge of prison gangs. Better screening and risk classification of offenders for gang involvement in juvenile and adult correctional facilities is imperative. This would help protect the public by giving correctional staff reliable information to classify gang offenders at the appropriate level of risk and to match juvenile offenders with gang treatment programs available in correctional facilities. Effective programs are needed in these facilities to prevent gang formation, membership, and victimization and to break up drug operations inside prisons.

  • Programs are needed to break the cycle of gang members moving from communities to detention to corrections and prisons and back into communities (Howell and Decker, 1999). Ex-convicts need marketable job skills and gainful employment opportunities to avoid the lucrative drug market. Breaking this cycle becomes all the more important as States are imprisoning younger and younger offenders who now are returning to the streets at a younger age than in the past. Making effective drug treatment programs available, along with legitimate job opportunities, would also help break the cycle.

  • Jurisdictions can control and reduce gang problems by targeting serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offenders who may not necessarily be known gang members. In jurisdictions that have gang problems, these offenders are very likely to be involved in them. Most gang members are known to the justice system and local social service agencies at some point in their gang careers. More effective intervention is needed, using risk and needs assessment technology, to better protect the public and improve rehabilitation efforts.

  • Police should not be expected to assume sole responsibility for youth gang problems. Broad-based community collaboration is essential for long-term success. Communities that begin with suppression as their main response generally discover later that cooperation and collaboration between public and private community agencies and citizens are necessary for an effective solution. Considerable advantage accrues from involving the entire community from the outset, beginning with a comprehensive and systematic assessment of the presumed youth gang problem. Key community leaders must mobilize the resources of the entire community, guided by a consensus on definitions, program targets, and interrelated strategies. Comprehensive programs that incorporate prevention, intervention, and enforcement components are most likely to be effective.

  • Preventing children and adolescents from joining gangs may be the most cost-effective solution, but little is known about how to do this. Providing alternatives for potential or current gang members appears to hold promise, particularly if gang conflicts are mediated at the same time. An antigang curriculum, especially if combined with afterschool or antibullying programs, may be effective. Because predictors for joining a gang and remaining in a gang span multiple domains—individual problems, family variables, school problems, peer group associations, and community conditions—programs that address multiple components appear to be the most effective.

27 This principle is attributed to Sergeant David Starbuck, Gang Squad, Kansas City Police Department, Kansas City, MO. Personal communication, March 31, 2000.


Youth Gang Programs and Strategies
OJJDP Summary
August 2000