Gangs present a serious public safety challenge to our communities. But the approach that our state has instinctively turned to in the past—relying on arresting and jailing those believed to be involved in gangs—fails to get to the root causes of the issue, and likely makes it worse. To be sure, for Washington cities dealing with violent crime, such as those in the Yakima Valley, meeting this challenge means appropriately punishing violent offenders. But it is equally critical to find avenues through which individuals can leave gangs and reenter the community. Simply imprisoning gang members and telling them to leave gangs doesn’t work if there’s nothing else for them to do, and no resources to help them get out.
The ACLU-WA has undertaken significant research on what has worked in other communities across the nation. It turns out that the communities that have successfully tackled their gang issues have all taken a multi-pronged approach. Narrowly targeted law enforcement efforts that focus on violent crime must be accompanied by gang prevention and intervention services that meet individuals where they are—and offer them realistic, face-saving ways to get out of gangs. It turns out that many gang members are searching for an exit from the violence themselves. The ultimate solution involves law enforcement, government, and service providers working closely together to create that exit strategy.
It’s just as clear that communities that have tried to arrest their way out of gang problems have inevitably failed to do so. As a report by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction described, years of research and experience have “demonstrate[d] the relative ineffectiveness of suppression as a long-term solution to gangs.” Cities across the country have learned that lesson the hard way—spending millions of dollars on suppression efforts that failed because gang members simply went back to their old ways when they were back on the street. And in fact, the arrest approach makes the problem worse by sending low-level offenders, like taggers and vandals, to prison with hardened, violent criminals—creating an endless pipeline of freshly minted gang members.
A team of ACLU staffers recent met with community leaders in the Yakima Valley to learn what has been working on the ground to deter youth from joining gangs and to reduce gang-related crime. The community roundtable we convened included service providers, local government officials, law enforcement, and a state legislator. What community leaders agreed on was that we can’t arrest our way out of the problem, and that we need education and employment opportunities—simply put, something else for kids to do. It was equally clear that it will be a tough fight to find the money to fund those opportunities. But we remain committed to engaging in the discussion, and to insisting on a responsible, informed approach to ending this violence that doesn’t simply repeat suppression approaches that have already failed.
Based on the tremendous response we had in Yakima, we know there are many community-based organizations doing effective gang intervention and prevention work. Does your organization have success stories to share? If so, please let us know!