Gangs, and particularly youth gangs, have become a national epidemic. Our youths have gone from swiping hubcaps and fist fighting to selling drugs and drive-by shootings. Law enforcement and corrections officials need to understand the crises, and especially the influence of prison gangs over youth gangs, in order to strategically direct resources to reduce the influence of gangs.
The proliferation of gang violence in our communities, in many cases, can be traced to the most secure housing units in our correctional facilities. These units house the most dangerous and influential inmates and, therefore, become gang headquarters. Through an elaborate communication system, gang leaders manage to direct violence throughout our prisons and into our communities. Street gang members--many of them youths--kill, rob, steal, extort and sell drugs at the direction of and for the benefit of the prison gang leaders.
The juvenile justice system is continually prompted to "fix" the problem of youth gangs and violence. However, it is the fix that ignites the age-old debate of rehabilitation vs. punishment. On the one hand we want to help at-risk kids, and on the other we are fed up with the violence and want to try teens as adults and incarcerate them for longer periods of time. The problem is complex and it raises many questions. Do we fear our own children? How are at-risk children treated in this country? What about the disintegration of the family unit? How effective is the foster care delivery system? Do we treat juvenile offenders as adults? Do we have clear-cut policies or are we at the whim of the knee-jerk reactions of our elected officials?
The call for more juvenile prisons, to make juvenile criminal records public and to punish juveniles as adults is alive and well today. The other side of the debate believes incarcerating juveniles will not solve the problem. It calls for more intervention and prevention programs to keep high-risk youths in school, out of trouble and out of the system.
The one thing we do know from our experience is the more young people we can successfully divert from the system the better. Once juveniles enter, it is very difficult for them to successfully get out and beat the system's stigma. Juvenile practitioners know these young gang members were not born this way. Deep down they are just children who want the...