Gang myths, Bloods and Crips
Public Intellectual editor Heather Tirado Gilligan talks gang policy with criminal justice expert Barry Krisberg.
The prison population has been on an upward spiral since tough-on-crime-laws took effect in the 1980s. How can we reduce the prison population without hurting public safety? That’s one of the most important policy questions of the twenty-first century: the costs of prisons are breaking many states, including California. One way to tackle the prison problem is to get smart on crime, an idea that’s generated a lot of buzz recently. But that phrase, smart on crime, has been used to justify a number of punitive programs, including the ever-popular strategy of gang injunctions in California.
Gang injunctions are restraining orders issued in civil court. Injunctions are anathema to civil rights – they impose curfews, restrict association between people who are accused of gang membership, and place people who have not been convicted of a crime under police scrutiny. And they are very popular in California, pending even in bucolic, wealthy areas of the state like Santa Barbara, a town virtually untouched by violent crime.
The myth of the all-powerful criminal gang that runs a neighborhood like an inner city fiefdom feeds knee-jerk reactions to gang-related crime. Our policy reacts to the TV and film version of gang life, rather than the actual problem, according to criminal justice expert Barry Krisberg, Ph.D., Distinguished Senior Fellow and Lecturer in Residence at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice. To get smart on gangs – and crime more generally – we need to work from a realistic assessment of the problem, and take a look at the prevention programs that may be working.
Smart solutions to the gang problem do exist, as Krisberg explains in this interview with Public Intellectual editor Heather Tirado Gilligan.
When we talk about the gang problem, what kinds of gangs are we talking about? Should we be thinking Bloods and Crips ?
The definition of a gang [in California] is three or more people involved in some kind of criminal activity. That’s a pretty broad definition. Under that definition, every fraternity on the UC campus is a gang, to the extent that a few people go out and buy alcohol or drugs together.
Gangs are so filled with mythology, ranging from the old myth, which was the Crips and Bloods were leading an international expansion of gang activity. And I used to think, isn’t it fascinating that these guys who couldn’t even graduate from high school were leading an international conspiracy?
There is nothing like what we used to know as the Crips or the Bloods. There are not large organizations, organizations with strong leadership structures. They are very different from the historic gangs of Los Angeles or Chicago. Gangs today are not a tightly knit organization. This is not the mafia. We are fighting the last war [with our anti-gang policy], not the current war.
It’s pretty clear to me that maybe at one point there was a group called the Norteños. Now the Norteños, in my opinion, refer to any Hispanic male who’s involved in any criminal activity.
To me one of the most accurate media portrayals of gangs is reflected in the HBO show The Wire, a bunch of people in Baltimore who knew each other and were engaged in selling drugs and other activity under a loose leadership structure.
What do you think of gang injunctions? Are they an effective way to end gang-related crime?
In Oakland, where they did it, crime went up [in that neighborhood] even though in Oakland as a whole, crime went down. It reminds me of the old Groucho Marx quote, “Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?”
Basically there is no good research on it. It’s really just data manipulation. It’s one thing when you actually do a research study. That’s different from just collecting a lot of data to look at a trend over time. There’s really no solid evidence to support it.
To me the biggest concern I have is that we don’t need them. It represents a needless incursion on individual rights when we already have a criminal justice system. Gang injunctions are essentially useless. If I was a DA, I’d be pretty angry, because this is infringing on my legitimate authority, and I have real tools. I’ve got the criminal justice system. The sanctions handed out from these injunctions are very minor to weak. Most of the arrests are for marijuana so far. As they say in Texas, it’s all hat and no cattle so far.
A gang injunction basically says, the criminal justice system, with all of its protections and rights, we’re going to throw that out the door. Someone would have to show to me that the criminal justice system is ineffective before I had to throw it away. If I’m charged in the criminal system, I get an attorney, I get to know what the evidence is against me, I get to confront my accusers. Gang injunctions don’t have any of that.
If people want to throw away democracy and the bill of rights, people need to show that the criminal justice system is ineffective before they throw it away.
The question I have is, where does it end? It’s never good to provide second-class justice to some people.
Sadly, this society seems to look the other way when we’re talking about the rights of minority folks. I just don’t see this happening in a white working class area.
I’m not saying that [everyone on the injunction] are all angels or all innocent. Gangs are serious. They play a major role in the crime problem in California and the Bay Area. But we have better ways of going at it.
What’s the most effective policy response to gangs?
Suppression activities in general tend to backfire. In every meeting we’ve ever had police would stand up and say, “We can’t arrest ourselves out of this problem.”
The emerging view in terms of dealing with gangs is that you need a balanced strategy, programs that include prevention and early intervention and programs designed to divert youth from the gang culture. We need to go into to high crime areas and break up the culture that supports them, whether it’s no snitching or resorting to violence.
The biggest issue remains that young people are growing up, they are getting socialized into gang culture, and they are getting kicked out of school and suspended and expelled, they are not getting opportunities in the society. If I can’t get a job, why shouldn’t I be out there selling drugs?
As long as you have unemployment rates in certain neighborhoods that are rivaling 50 or 60 percent of the young male population, gangs are going to exist. Throwing a lot of suppression at it is not going to have an effect.
In California, we have 107,000 locked up in prison [and] 180,000 in jails. What more do we need?
Why are are we using tactics like gang injunctions when there’s no data to support their effectiveness? Is this typical of how we make police decisions about crime?
Criminal justice tends to be driven by fads. Some years ago the big fad was Scared Straight, now Scared Straight is coming back. This is the politics of law enforcement. The politics of law enforcement has nothing to do with law enforcement.
What programs are working well right now?
Programs like Chicago’s CeaseFire are effective, hiring former gang members and having them go out as street as outreach workers. Reach out to the gang member, try and get them in employment programs and back into school if they are in school. Those programs seem to be effective. That’s where the thinking is around the country.