Thursday, October 1, 2009
Gangs in Garden City by Sarah Garland
One study in Florida- among the most aggressive states when it came to cracking down on youth crime- found that putting children in prisons, especially adult prisons, raised the recidivism rate. The longer they were in detention, the more likely it was that they would go back to crime after their release, the study found. Another study compared juvenile recidivism in New York, with its tougher laws, to New Jersey, where juveniles were largely kept out of the adult criminal court system. It found that the New Jersey youth were less likely to be arrested again after their release. New York's system, in contrast, was a revolving door. A Center for Disease Control report also recommended against sending juveniles to adult jails, finding that that it "generally resulted in increased arrest for subsequent crimes, including violent crime." But by the time the report was published in November of 2007, following 'legislation beginning in the 1970s and 80s, the Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Acts of 1992- 94 and the Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Act of 1997, hundreds of thousands of young people had already passed through adult jails.
Minority youth bore the brunt of the crackdown. Studies showed that African American and Hispanic teenagers were arrested at higher rates, given harsher sentences and kept in jail longer than whites. Furthermore, thousands of young African Americans and Hispanic teenagers were listed in gang databases- suspects e before they had even committed a crime. Gang experts noted that the efforts of law enforcement officials to label the gang members complemented the work of the gangs themselves by fostering cohesion and further alienating the members from mainstream society. At same time, the definitions of gang membership varied widely across states and jurisdictions. Besides these wide variances in state laws, local law enforcement agencies often had a lot of discretion in deciding what counted as gang-related crime. The confusion about what constituted gang membership did little to stop widespread panic- fueled by media and politicians- about its growth.
In 2004, a group of Long Island police chiefs, among them Chief Russo of Hemstead and Chief Woodward of Freeport, released a joint report with a youth advocacy organization, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. The report warned that gang homicides were increasing, gangs in Long Island were growing, and that the members were getting younger and younger. Quoting Chief Russo, the report called gangs "domestic terrorists", who "intimidate entire neighborhoods and entire communities."
But throwing more of them in jail would backfire, the Long Island police argued. They pointed to a decade of cracking down against juveniles to prove their point. "Locking up youths in juvenile facilities may only increase the likelihood that they will continue a life of crime", the report said.
In Long Island in particular, the influx of young inmates had strained the already embattled juvenile justice system. In 1999, 1,000 children were held in Nassau and Suffolk annually, about quarter of the state juvenile inmate population and more than during the crime wave in the 1970s- even though crime among youth dropped 20% in Suffolk County and 29% in Nassau County over three years. The swell of new cases meant children waited longer in the island's dilapidated detention centers for their cases to wind through court and became more likely to act out again when they left.
The police report was critical of the Pataki administrations introduction of a new antigang initiative that year, Operation IMPACT. The program pumped more than $7 million into new gang task forces around the state, promoted information sharing, and trained law enforcement and educators in how to identify gang members. More law enforcement was "only a partial solution" the chiefs' report said. "Identifying gang members was only half the battle."
Their recommendations weren't innovative. They echoed the fifty-year-old 'Great Society' crime report commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, dusting off proposals to enhance intervention, address poverty, improve public schools that had been discarded in the anti-rehabilitation, 'get tough on crime' movement of the 1970s. The report was novel only in that it was written by a group of police officers begging to expand the response to gangs beyond more funding for their departments. "Law enforcement cannot solve the juvenile crime problem themselves. We can deal over and over with disasters, repeatedly repairing the expanding leak, or we can find the money to fix the hole in the roof", the report concluded.