Blog: Protecting young people from gangs

Published: 1 Nov 2019

Blog: Protecting young people from gangs

There are three core issues that affect young people involved with gangs: mental illness, substance misuse and reduced aggression control. The latter leads towards violent offending. Research has demonstrated that these risk factors are strongly related, and are associated more broadly with youths who are involved in violent offending.

As an academic, I am concerned with creating and evaluating programmes for young people who are involved in gangs. Increasingly, youth justice organisations seek to identify young people who are gang members, for reasons of safe-guarding and of intelligence. But their interventions focus on membership of the group, rather than on the problems of the individual - in spite of academic research consistently showing that gang membership is far from heterogenous and that many individuals continue to be at risk of offending after leaving the gang.

Against this background, I decided to concentrate my Churchill Fellowship on exploring the key characteristics that are associated with gang involvement among youths, and on researching more broadly the role of significant agencies within the US criminal justice system.

Police intervention may be the only hope a young person has when they are involved with adult criminal groups

I spent two weeks in Texas, with Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, to learn more about their Mental Health Special Operations and Juvenile Divisions, which deal with civil proceedings. I also attended a 40-hour course for police officers on crisis intervention. The police are often the first agency to encounter young people who present risk factors associated with gang involvement. Police involvement in intervention at an early stage could prevent the exploitation of young people by adult criminals, and may be the only hope that a young person has when they are involved with adult criminal groups.

Exclusion from mainstream school is another recognised risk factor for gang involvement. I therefore visited Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice to find out more about their programmes for young people at a day school in Louisville. The school adopted a comprehensive approach to tackle all the risk factors associated with youth offending and gang membership. In addition to academic and technical programmes, there were interventions for aggression management, dealing with substance misuse, and supporting students to improve their mental wellbeing, with planned sessions and open access to a team of counsellors. Staff training and knowledge of their student group was extremely high and ensured that the young people attending the school were offered a consistent approach and support.

In the UK, it often falls to community organisations to provide support for youths who are involved with gangs, or at risk of becoming so. In Chicago the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation follow a restorative approach, so I spent the day learning about their work. The Ministry are based in one of Chicago’s most deprived neighbourhoods, where gang violence and drug selling are endemic. They offer counselling, training, reflection and support for the young men and women they serve. Importantly, they respond to their community’s needs rather than imposing their vision upon it. In common with staff at the justice agencies I visited, they have a comprehensive and realistic understanding of how they can support young people and work with them as individuals.

There were common approaches among all the organisations that I visited: specialist and local knowledge of the problems facing young people; a targeted and individual approach to supporting juveniles; and an embedded multi-agency approach. The latter is particularly noticeable at the four-day conference organised each year in Chicago by the annual National Gang Crime Research Center. Academics, community organisations, juvenile justice and law enforcement agencies attend this in order to be trained, to share knowledge of practice and risk, and to network. The programme and certification scheme have different strands for specialisation, so that professionals can concentrate but not be restricted to obtaining up to date knowledge relating to gangs.

In the UK, gang interventions tend not to offer a comprehensive programme to address the complex problems that individuals present. Few interventions are informed by the most recent academic research; nor are they effectively or fully evaluated. Within youth justice, we enquire whether young people are gang-involved without fully understanding what this really means or how to tailor interventions effectively. Where good practice exists, it isn’t easily shared and it rarely involves all of the key agencies comprehensively.

If we are to support and protect young people in the UK from gang involvement and criminal exploitation, we need to ensure that we offer them the very best interventions, and that each of the organisations involved has access to the most up to date knowledge and practice. This is especially important at a time when most public agencies are under-funded and under-staffed. Working effectively as part of a sequence, to identify, intervene with and support vulnerable young people is crucial, if we are to end what has become a cycle of violence and criminal exploitation. A good starting point would be an annual conference, focusing on the issue by bringing academics and professionals together to promote collaboration and adopt a more informed and integrated approach.

I am currently involved in a number of applied research projects relating to gangs in the UK and I will continue to work with the agencies and organisations I currently support; and to publish and communicate my findings as extensively as possible. Agencies in the USA have a stronger advantage in tackling gangs, because of their integrated structures and access to comprehensive training. Enabling knowledge transfer and promoting a comprehensive, coherent and flexible approach to combat gang violence and youth crime is essential, if we are to work successfully with all those who are affected.

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