Most of the literature since intensive research began in 1999 on how to best address youth gangs say otherwise. Here is a snap shot of some reports and findings over the past several years:
The National Institute of Justice two day Conference of expert gang researchers and practitioners February 2011:
(Read the full report here: http://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/gangs-organized/gangs/working-group/february-2011.htm#researchgaps)
High-Priority Research Needs, 1999
“In 1999, the Gang-Related Research Cluster Conference, convened by NIJ, highlighted the fact that not much was known in gang-related research. Many programs and research initiatives were just starting…Conference participants identified high-priority research needs for NIJ. Since then, the majority of them have been addressed, but few have been addressed thoroughly.”
Some of the needs identified at the conference included:
- Empirical evidence for best practices in gang prevention, intervention and suppression.
- Combining qualitative and quantitative approaches.
- Uses of the gang problem for political purposes.
- Resolving risk, resiliency and resistance predictors.
- What are the effective mechanisms of best practices/intervening variables?
- Need for specialized (e.g., gender, cultural) gang prevention and intervention practices (the one-size-fits-all problem).
- Worst practices in gang prevention and intervention
(To see the full list visit: http://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/gangs-organized/gangs/working-group/february-2011.htm#researchgaps)
1. Evaluation of the G.R.E.A.T. program that became a nationally implemented program in 1992:
“In 1994, NIJ funded a program evaluation of G.R.E.A.T. Results of the evaluation were presented in 1998; they indicated that G.R.E.A.T. was not having much program impact. This led to a two-year critical assessment and several recommendations for change. A new and expanded G.R.E.A.T. program was developed, and in 2003, the new version replaced the old one.”
National Institute of Justice 2004 Evaluation of G.R.E.A.T.: “Despite the success in addressing risk factors, the third objective—reducing gang membership and delinquent behavior—was not met.” (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij)
· In 2006, although the revised G.R.E.A.T. program did not produce evidenced-based results, NIJ decided to evaluate the program again, which raises questions like the following at the NIJ 2011 conference:
“A participant commented that some programs do not work, but they have high name recognition and continue to be used — such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.). He asked whether, under those circumstances, it would be better to scrap the program completely or to change the program but keep the name. Fear of evaluation can be a significant factor for gang prevention and intervention programs. Too often, program personnel fear a rigorous evaluation that might find that their program is “broken.” Program officials would be better served by incorporating evaluation findings to improve their programs. If a program is “broken,” steps can be taken to fix it so it can be re-evaluated, possibly resulting in better outcomes. Particularly in times of tight budgets, it is important to fix already existing programs rather than creating entirely new ones. The G.R.E.A.T. program is an example of this.”
· This response begs a lot of questions because many funders and public monies these days seem to require that a proposed program for funding be evidenced-based. Yet, in the above example this was not the case and it goes back to the initial comment by the conference participant. Some “broken programs” seem to be given favor and continued funding in spite of a lack of proven results, while others are not.
· No one is going to fear a “rigorous evaluation” if it is done for the purposes of improvement and not to scrap it.
· This is the old “catch-22” situation. Some already existing programs can’t get more funding without being evidenced-based, yet other existing non-effective programs continue to get more funds and evaluation to fix their ineffectiveness.
2. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention 2000:
“In conclusion, there is no clear solution to preventing or reducing gang activity, although some promising programs have been identified…Clearly, there is no one “magic bullet” program or “best practice” for preventing gang affiliation and gang-associated violence.”
3. OJJDP 2009:
“A proven, effective set of prescribed steps for mobilizing communities to address gang problems does not exist.”
4. National Gang Threat Assessment – 2009:
“Most regions in the United States will experience increased gang membership, continued migration of gangs to suburban and rural areas, and increased gang-related activity…Gang related violence is very likely to remain at high levels or increase as gangs expand their criminal operations…”
5. Summary of NIJ 2011 Conference:
“Communities and individuals who become involved in a program can affect outcomes. Researchers may choose communities that are cooperative and accepting of program trials but possibly avoid communities with higher risk factors that are more in need of the programming…The youth who participate usually are in need, but their participation means that the programs are not reaching the high-risk group.”
“Challenges naturally arise when applying a “one-size-fits-all” model to a community. Prevention programs must delve into the marginalized populations in a community, taking into account the needs of those populations and adapting programs to accommodate those needs…Certainly, outcome measures are important when examining gang prevention programs; however, despite the many existing prevention programs, researchers have had problems evaluating them in a rigorous and consistent way…In fact, nothing in the research literature provides a strong rationale that justifies using one specific group of programs or activities.”
Blueprints Program Applied to Gang Members
“Blueprints for Violence Prevention — was launched in 1996. The purpose of Blueprints was to identify and replicate effective violence prevention programs. In 2008, Blueprints began a new initiative focused specifically on developing and testing gang prevention and intervention programs…An extensive review of gang prevention and intervention programs showed that none of the programs met the Blueprints standard for evidence-based model programs.”
The Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative (CAGI)
“CAGI was launched in 2006 as an extension of DOJ’s Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) program. CAGI uses PSN’s enforcement strategies but targets its efforts to gangs as opposed to gun violence…CAGI faced some early challenges, including the absence of performance measures identified at the outset…Currently, DOJ is waiting for the results of an overall evaluation of CAGI by Michigan State University. In a teleconference conducted with representatives from CAGI cities in the fall of 2010, the general feeling was that CAGI was worthwhile despite implementation challenges…participants in the conference call felt that, anecdotally, the relationships developed between law enforcement and local communities were more prominent and less adversarial as a result of CAGI and PSN.”
· Interesting to note that “anecdotal” evidence was used and considered to evaluate whether or not the program was “worthwhile” and could continue to be funded before evaluation results were received on the progam.
Advances in Research
Since the 1999 conference, what have we learned gang research?
“Based on longitudinal studies with youth surveys conducted in Denver, Colo., and Rochester, N.Y., which focused on the enhancement and facilitation effects of gangs on their members, the common wisdom is that levels of delinquent activity increase when youth join gangs, particularly where violent activity is occurring. The same pattern is observed in victimization.” – I’m sorry, but, It’s hard to believe and accept that after all the emphasis placed on evidenced-based research, that this is a serious conclusion learned by advanced researchers. And the same goes for their findings and conclusions below:
· “Even when propensity-score matching is used to control for pre-existing differences, there is still an increase in violence and victimization among gang members that declines after gang members exit the gang.” – I really don’t want to sound cavalier here, but, REALLY?
“Criminal behavior of a youth declines after exiting a gang, which emphasizes the importance of gang prevention and intervention. Gang prevention and intervention will impact the offending rate of the individual. If the length of time in a gang can be shortened, the delinquency rate of the youth can be decreased.” – With all due respect, I think these comments and conclusions make the point that the priority and investment in data can be overrated.
Suggested Areas For More Basic Research On Gangs (original list is too long for my purposes here – My comments are in italics):
- Develop a consensus on a common definition of “gangs” for use in research – After all this research still can’t define what a gang is?
- Examine the role of gang dynamics and gang affiliation – more of the same?
- Vary the risk factors for gang membership across gender, ethnicity and other factors – Do we need more study for risk factors at this point?
- What are the methods and processes by which kids join, participate and leave gangs?- Just ask. But we already know that the reasons vary and there’s never going to be a process that fits every gang member.
- Understand the transition between street and prison gangs. – A matter of knowing prison culture.
- Why, despite having similar risk factors, do some youth join gangs and some do not (resilience)? – A mystery we’ll never understand no matter how many studies are conducted.
- Conduct more research on gangs as groups. – ?????
- What are the social, community and neighborhood conditions that give rise to gang membership? What are the factors in U.S. society that lead to this? – Haven’t these questions been asked and answered many times over?
- In what social conditions and in what ways can people be brought together to mobilize and to prevent youth from joining gangs? – The social condition that usually bring people together to prevent kids from joining gangs is an acute crisis. This is, and has been, happening regularly for a long time across U.S. communities.
- Translating the research findings more effectively to the practitioner and policy communities. – Why has this taken so long?
- Using more advanced statistical analysis techniques to examine the complex nature of gangs, such as social network analysis. – What have the statistics done for us thus far? What more can they tell us about the complex nature of gangs?
- Improving the methods of measuring the effectiveness of prevention, intervention and deterrence programs. – If the methods of measurement at this point still need to be improved, what does that say about programs claiming to be evidenced based?
- Using secondary data to study gangs, and adding gang-related questions to existing surveys. – Which secondary data?
- Encouraging graduate research fellowships and postdoctoral research on gangs. – More theory from those who’ve never been there?
What conclusions can we draw from these research conclusions?
- Expert researches agree that they have a long way to go in understanding gangs and improving upon empirical efforts to address the problems gangs create.
- Researchers are still searching for the evidence of which programs work and don’t work on a problem they can’t define using methods that still need improvement.
- Anecdotal evidence from front line workers is a valid measurement of what seems to be working and justifies continued funding.
- Evaluation is best used to measure the effectiveness of existing programs and to improve them, not eliminate them for starting all over again with a new so called evidenced-based program.
The bottom line is that communities can’t wait for social science to catch up with activity on the ground. Local law enforcement and agencies are doing what they can and are in the best position to decide which programs to fund and implement. Local decision makers should listen to the local “expert” voices of law enforcement, school officials, youth, parents and ex-gang members. If you have community people giving credit to a local program for effective gang prevention and intervention, why wouldn’t local purse string holders continue to invest in such a program regardless of what research or outside voices say? The validity and effectiveness of a program is in the tangible transformation of lives, not the intangible translation of data.