City University New York criminologist David Brotherton:
Crime policy should not be conceived as ideology
In developing effective policies in regards to street gangs, the most important thing is to know what kind of groups you're dealing with. Some gangs are quite entrepreneurial and involved in the political economy or informal economy. They might be involved in all kinds of things, from drugs to extortion. While other gangs are much more social and more about forming group identity as subcultures of resistance, you got gangs that are a mixture of the two and dabble in this and dabble in something else. So, you really need to know what you're dealing with. Getting the characteristics of the group you’re trying to socially control is the first thing.
The second thing concerns the context in which these groups emerge. Is there a particular kind of urban context with a great deal of pressure and marginalization? Is it somewhere that there might be more surveillance? Is it somewhere that there might be a lot of police repression and oppression and they're responding to that? Are they forming in more rural areas, semi-urban areas, or suburban areas? So, what's the context in which these groups are emerging? Because that makes a lot of difference in how you can engage the community in attempts to socially control these groups.
That was the local context. Then, the broader context concerns the kind of national policies which are going on. For example, we have very strict policies on immigration here in the United States now. For some years now, tens of thousands of people have been expelled from the country, even people who grew up here. So, if you're in a country that has very discriminatory national policies towards minorities, that is important to take into context as well. Because you could be doing something on the local level, but on a national level the government might be doing the exact opposite. It might be completely undermining all the good work that you're attempting to put in place. So, all of these things have to be brought to bear on policy.
And then finally, I would say something that, again, certainly applies to the United States because the United States is really where so many of the gang policies originate. We've been in a policy of social exclusion, basically, for a very long time. That's why we have so many people in prison.
We've got a situation where crime policy is almost an ideology. It's completely out of whack with whether or not the policy works. It's just the ideology. Therefore, you have a situation where you inherit these policies, and there doesn't seem to be anything you can do to change them. It just becomes the normative response to certain people to say, “This country is full of poor people and people of color, in general”.
All of these things have to be brought into the situation. From my perspective as a sociologist and as a criminologist, when we're dealing with gangs that have a much more social basis, we need policies of social inclusion. The more we socially include young people, the more we engage them in, say, civic activities and becoming fully-fledged citizens, the better. Especially with youths who come into these subcultures when they're like 13–15 years old, they need to be coming into a society that really wants them and sees them as the future, not as the bane of our existence.
Therefore, policies that are very strongly socially inclusive and not simply based on punishment and rejection work much better. They work much better on a number of levels. One, they work much better in preventing the groups from forming in the first place because most of the policies we have in the United States respond to the groups once they're in existence. But you really need policies to work the other way around; you need policies in place that prevent some of these subcultures from emerging in the first place. Secondly, when the young people deviate, get in some trouble, transgress certain rules, or whatever — and most of them are low-level infractions — you need policies in place that don't stigmatize the youth very early on and give kids a chance to change, rehabilitate, reenter, and do all kinds of things.
We have a policy here, for example, called ‘Three strikes and You're Out’. It means that if you're charged for three crimes, you go away for life, basically. And it could be anything from stealing a bicycle to homicide. Those kinds of one-size-fits-all policies are ridiculous. Those are very different kinds of crimes. These policies are based on this get-tough advocacy from certain politicians. Basically, this legislation is there because they got votes by being tough on the criminal. It has nothing to do with a good criminal justice policy. It has nothing to do with what works. Again, it's simply ideology. So, all these things have to come into play when we're discussing policies.