I grew up in Los Angeles, a city known for traffic. It used to be called “rush hour” traffic meaning that you could expect long lines of traffic on the commute to and from work Monday through Friday. That was a long time ago, today the traffic in LA is better referred to as, “all the time traffic.” Even on the weekends, morning or night, there is traffic. The joke being: doesn’t anybody work around here?
City officials for decades have been dealing with this problem—trying to get rid of the traffic problem by adding more lanes. They’ve been adding more lanes (which, ironically adds to the traffic problem during the seemingly never-ending road work) for decades. The question is: Has this solved the problem? Answer: No. Question: Have they stopped adding more lanes? No. Why? I don’t know, but I’m sure they have a rationale for the time and money spent on the ongoing roadwork that we have all grown accustomed to—a sort of necessary inconvenience.
This reminds me of the same approach when it comes to dealing with gangs. We continue to adopt the mentality that more programs, parks, pools, and police will solve the problem. Moreover, we continue to add more laws—harsher laws—again thinking that this is the answer. Yet, as already pointed out in earlier blogs, law enforcement knows better.
I agree that all of the “more’s” I’ve listed are necessary, but they are a necessary “disruption” and not a long term solution. Thus, community authority figures and decision makers need to change where they invest the majority of their limited resources to give them the best long-term return on that investment. I’m no financial expert, but isn’t that what we learn as the conventional wisdom of financial investment portfolios? A long term and short-term strategy—a “not putting all you eggs in one basket” approach.
As a short-term strategy, more and harsher legislation and federalizing gang laws can show results as we have witnessed in many communities across the country. Nevertheless, over the long haul, if there is no long-term investment, we can get caught in the cycle of throwing new money after bad and never really making a profit. Isn’t that what’s been happening with public and private resources invested in addressing the gang issue? We’ve had some results, but as time goes on those results prove to be short term at best as the past decades of gang numbers point out.
Let’s go back to the traffic analogy. Years ago they came up with what is known as the “diamond lane.” The idea was to award those who were willing to car-pool. So, instead of sitting in traffic like everyone else, here is a special lane for all of you who have more than one person in the car because you are contributing to the solution by putting more people in your car and therefore fewer cars on the freeway. Now, let’s think about that for a minute. If that was really the intent of the diamond lane, then why not add more diamond lanes? I mean, if you’re going to expand from three lanes to five or six, why wouldn’t you make most of the new lanes diamond lanes and less lanes for individual commuters? Wouldn’t that get at the root of the problem, which is: the people who choose to drive to work by themselves? Well, of course that’s never going to happen. Imagine the uproar! So, they just keep adding more lanes for the individual, rather than for the very thing that gets at the root of the problem, inconvenient as it might be. So, what’s the message? Preventing traffic is not where the real value lies. And given the ongoing investment in new, harsher legislation, despite all the research and statistics, I’d say the same rings true when it comes to the real message we continue to get from decision makers in regards to gang prevention.
As a case in point, the report, Ganging Up on Communities, putting Gang Crime in Context, July 2005, released by the Justice Policy Institute (www.justicepolicy.org), stated the following:
“Currently, public opinion is swayed by sensationalized stories from media and lawmakers who say that gang-related crime is a “national crisis,” requiring new federal and state legislation, mandatory minimums, and new powers to arrest, detain, imprison, and deport young people… Responding to provisions to transfer youth to adult prison, Robert Shepherd, Professor of Law at the University of Richmond and former Virginia prosecutor, says: “this bill flies in the face of what works with young people …the evidence shows that trying young people as adults exacerbates rather than lessens crime.”
And, comments from one gang research expert and former prison gang members on the effectiveness of sending youth to prison as a gang solution:
- “Rather than prison being a place to send gang members in an attempt to break up the gang, gangs have adapted and used prison to advance their interests.” – Hagedorn, A World of Gangs (2009)
- “It’s an accepted fact of life that Mexican Mafia members and associates don’t need to be on the street to conduct business. To shot-callers…going to prison doesn’t put you out of circulation. It means you’ve been relocated to the home office.” – Rafael, The Mexican Mafia (2007)
- “Gang proliferation and gang migration – mostly emanating from southern California – has spread across the United States and into a number of foreign countries as if it were a disease…Clearly, I don’t possess a cure for that plague, but what I can do is offer…an insiders view of prison…the Mexican Mafia’s tentacles reach far beyond the walls and razor wire fences of prisons. And sadly, its influence also continues to ignite racial violence between Blacks and Latinos in schools, as well as racially motivated street gang wars.” – Rene, “Boxer”, Enriguez, former EME leader. Blatchford, The Black Hand (2008)
Let me be clear, incarceration is needed and it does have an important and appreciated role to play in dealing with certain necessary aspects of this problem. Yet, I suggest communities must continue to prioritize their dollars in long-term, “inside-out” prevention strategies that get at the root of the problem. Gangs don’t exist and continue to grow because we don’t have enough, know enough, or need more parks, pools, police and programs. They exist and continue to grow because in looking for solutions, communities want answers that mean they don’t have to change their personal lifestyle. Just like those who daily drive in traffic.