We are losing a generation of young people to gang violence. An incoming Tory government will have to start from scratch if it is going to make a differenceby Philippa Stroud / November 13, 2009 / Leave a comment
As Gavin Knight notes in his article for Prospect, “How to really hug a hoodie,” gang culture is increasingly plaguing deprived inner-city communities. For too long we have seen policies implemented to tackle a problem neither measured nor understood. If the Conservatives win the next election, they will have an opportunity to transform our approach to gangs and youth violence. But how can this be done, and will they be brave enough to do so?
At a Centre for Social Justice fringe event on this subject at the Conservative party conference, shadow home secretary Chris Grayling, rather than focusing on enforcement tactics, talked about the need to address why young people are joining gangs. He spoke of the need to support families, to roll out early intervention programmes and to tackle failing schools. He was firm in his commitment to bring violent offenders to justice, but he was equally firm in his commitment to prevention and intervention. These were promising words.
The current approach is, unquestionably, failing: children as young as ten and eleven are joining gangs, minor acts of “disrespect” are resulting in murder, and rape is being used as punishment or reprisal. In certain areas, young people feel safer in their local gang than not: gang membership, they believe, is the only protection available to them. In these areas, we are losing a generation to the streets.
This paints a bleak picture, but thankfully there are tried and tested solutions already in existence. At the start of this year the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) published Dying to Belong, a report which examined street gangs in Britain. It covered various aspects of the issue: the nature and scale of the problem, how our society has got to this point, and what could be done to tackle it. Despite gang violence dominating the headlines, it is shocking that this constituted the first comprehensive attempt to understand the problem on a national scale.
During the research for the report, the working group visited national and international examples of current programmes with successful results, including those operating in Boston and Strathclyde (upon which Gavin Knight’s article focuses), both of which were instrumental in the formulation of our policy recommendations. Where the Boston model differs from the current strategy, and why it works, is because it recognises an often overlooked issue: the need for an exit route. Rather than relying solely on enforcement, it acknowledges that young people need an alternative to gang life. Any long-term strategy must tackle the drivers of gang involvement, not just the results.
Gang members have invariably truanted or been excluded from school, they have experienced family breakdown—often fatherlessness, domestic violence and dysfunctional parenting—and have grown up in acutely deprived, high crime, high violence neighbourhoods in which few people work. A singularly criminal justice response doesn’t recognise this, and can therefore never offer a sustainable solution.
Yet the government continues to push “enforcement”—knife arches, stop and search, tougher sentences—as the solution. And they continue to do so despite the weight of evidence and experience showing how bankrupt such strategies are. As superintendent Paul Joyce of the Boston police department puts it: “you can’t arrest your way out of it.”
The truth is that gangs adapt to enforcement. One senior London borough police officer told us that Operation Blunt—an anti-knife crime initiative—had merely led to gang members carrying screwdrivers and craft knives instead.
The Boston approach requires strong political will. It is easy to leave the problem of gangs to the police—easier to be “tough on crime” and pay only lip service to being “tough on the causes of crime.” To meet this challenge, an incoming government will have to have the courage to act on their convictions. It will require real leadership, meaningful multi-agency collaboration, accountability at a local level and significant funding.
One of Dying to Belong’s key recommendations is the establishment of a cabinet level Gang Prevention Unit which would co-ordinate the much needed national audit and, in partnership with local authorities, help devise strategies to tackle the local gang problem. Such a cross-departmental unit would also help to overcome a fundamental barrier to progress: departmental fiefdoms. But for this to truly work it will require a meaningful budget, and this will need senior ministerial commitment. The potential savings which will accrue from an effective strategy will be huge (in criminal justice, health, social services, education and welfare costs)—yet an incoming government will need to hold their nerve on this.
To ensure the effective targeting of resources we should identify gang prevention zones: small geographical areas with high levels of gang activity. And we would need to provide these areas with key infrastructure and services too often absent in our most deprived communities—education and parenting services, addiction treatment, prevention and intervention programmes, and welfare-to-work support.
Finally, however, the police need to be able to work innovatively. The call-in programme, pioneered by US academic David Kennedy, and implemented as the “self-referral session” in Glasgow, is innovative and risky. The outcome is not guaranteed. But the experience in cities like Boston and Cincinnati, and now in Scotland, shows us that it does work. Ministers will need to have faith in the police, and let them get on with their job. Over the past decade we have seen increasing interference in police activity, and the destruction of police discretion.
The CSJ is absolutely committed to seeing the Boston model rolled out nationally and will continue to put pressure on politicians and policymakers. The work already done in Boston and Strathclyde clearly shows that the right strategy, with clear leadership and absolute commitment, can transform lives. Action is needed now.