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In today’s depressed economic environment more and more lawmakers are searching for creative ways to reduce government budgets, yet still, provide the vital services that are necessary to maintain life and safety within our communities. With incarceration rates growing to over ten times what they were between 1972 and 2008, what has become blatantly obvious, is that we as a society are spending an incredible amount of resources on incarceration and care of prisoners; resources that if used more wisely could not only result in reducing prison population, but could help to reintegrate those released as productive members of society. Obviously, this option cannot work in all instances, and can only be reserved for the less serious, non-violent offenses. As such, diversion, reintegration and restorative justice strategies could prove to be an effective means to help gang members establish productive bonds within their communities.
The notion behind the tough-on-crime stance that was so pervasive over the last couple of decades was to lock offenders up and throw away the key. Any deviation from that thought process and one was considered to be too liberal and lacking the fortitude to treat criminals as criminals. However, as this generation of mass incarceration trundled along, the residual effect was profound in the disparity in which it impacted the African-American community. Disproportionate incarceration, poor neighborhoods, and debilitating unemployment proved to be the civil rights trifecta to impact an already persecuted segment of society. Studies have shown that isolated programs such as hot spot crackdowns, recreation programs, or classroom anti-gang instruction sessions are temporary at best and not sufficient in the long term (Linden, 2010).
It is important to understand that only a comprehensive approach to reintegration and restorative justice will truly have a lasting impact on reducing gang crime and recidivism. Gang crime has many different causes and facilitators therefore; the solutions to the problem must also be multi-faceted and involve a combination of prevention, intervention, and suppression programs (Linden, 2010). Eliminating just one piece of this combined gang crime reduction strategy will jeopardize the success of the remaining pieces, and of the strategy as a whole. Combined program strategies have the greatest potential to provide lasting reductions in gang crime and hold the greatest potential for reintegrating members into their communities. In this essential mix, suppression in the form of hot spot patrols and aggressive enforcement can reduce existing street gang crime, while prevention programs such as G.R.E.A.T., reduce the number of potential gang recruits. As the final piece, intervention strategies help gang members to exit gangs and to avoid gangs after being released from prison (Linden, 2010). An effective, well-planned and uncomplicated comprehensive reduction program can make the difference between resounding success and miserable failure.
Repeated studies have indicated that incarceration, whether the offender is youthful or an adult, many times leads to recidivism and re-incarceration. Prisons and correctional facilities become the training grounds in which gang members can hone their skills by networking with more hardened, seasoned criminals. Once paroled, these at-risk individuals are socially ostracized and succumb easily to substance abuse, depression and violence resulting from overwhelming despair and an inability to imagine the future (Koffman et al., 2009). Reintegration strategies, as evidence suggests, helps to reduce the mental trauma and provide the necessary intervention to allow individuals to take control of their lives and chart out their path for the future. Coping strategies can dramatically increase resilience and help to reduce anti-social behaviors. Empowerment through training in social and cognitive-behavioral strategies, attention focusing, social skills learning and personal guidance have all proven to improve outcomes (Koffman et al., 2009).
The significance of developing programs that act as correctional interventions, that address the needs of gang members, particularly as it relates to the development of prosocial support networks, is a particularly poignant subject (Huebner, Varano, & Bynum, 2007). Without complete commitment and community support, programs such as these fail due to lack of funding and the unavailability of resources needed to keep the programs operational.
Truly effective reintegration programs should be coupled with community-wide interventions designed to improve neighborhood economies, encourage maintenance of treatment services and develop prosocial support networks (Huebner et al., 2007).
The important aspect of any reintegration, suppression or restorative justice program is the ability to address the needs of individuals on an ongoing basis as they transition from their prison community and re-enter society. Being able to identify and address behavioral and high-risk behaviors before they reach the tipping point is even better. However, until we as a society are willing to invest ourselves in understanding that the road to effective deterrence and offending desistance is a long-term proposition, we will continue to provide shallow programs and hollow promises.
Huebner, B. M., Varano, S. P., & Bynum, T. S. (2007, April, 27). Gangs, guns, and drugs: recidivism among serious, young offenders. American Society of Criminology, 6(2), 187-222.
Koffman, S., Ray, A., Berg, S., Covington, L., Albarran, N. M., & Vasquez, M. (2009). Impact of a comprehensive whole child intervention and prevention program among youths at risk of gang involvement and other forms of delinquency. National Association of Social Workers, 239-245.
Linden, R. (2010). Comprehensive approaches to address street gangs in Canada [Policy Brief 014]. Manitoba, Canada: Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.
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