Ganging up

By James Alan Fox, 12/1/2003

"NO NEWS IS good news," they say. But when it comes to the media coverage of trends in crime and violence, the reverse seems more accurate: Good news is no news. This may explain why the recent release of the latest annual compilation of national crime statistics from the FBI was ignored by so many media outlets.

Perhaps the limited coverage of the national crime rate was more a case of nothing new to report -- same, old same-old. For the third straight year, national crime levels were just that: level. Fortunately, we have held the line on violent crime, even in the face of a downturn economy and grim predictions from criminologists, including myself, that an expanding population of at-risk youth could put all of us at greater risk for victimization.

Despite the overall rosy crime picture, there is some disturbing news hidden within the data. Gang violence has rebounded, and not just by a few percentage points. The number of homicides traced to youth gangs, which had plummeted during the 1990s, has increased by more than 50 percent in just three years, from just below 700 in 1999 to about 1,100 in 2002.

This increase in gang homicide has been consistent and steady, not something that can be passed off as a one year blip or aberration. In fact, the latest tally of gang-related killings is nearly as high as it was during the peak years in the early 1990s amidst the epidemic of crack-related violence. In the overall scheme of murder trends, however, this upsurge in gang killings is balanced by continued decline in certain other forms of murder, especially spousal homicide.

Full disclosure of these figures indicates that the rise in gang homicide can be traced primarily to the Los Angeles area where gang violence has indeed been rampant, and to a lesser extent to Chicago. But as we learned painfully during the last wave of gang violence a decade ago, what starts in LA can quickly sweep across the nation. The recent shooting episodes that shocked our city may be an ominous harbinger of more tragedy.

Why have gangs made such a strong comeback, especially after having been controlled so effectively in Boston and elsewhere during the great 1990s crime slide? Regrettably, cities have foolishly and shortsightedly cut back on their antigang initiatives -- both prevention and enforcement programs -- wishfully thinking that the gang problem was no more. But every few years brings a new generation of youngsters who see gang membership as exciting, status-conferring, and cool. They wear gang colors and show off their hand signals with pride. Today's recruits are too young to have witnessed the bloodshed of a decade ago when joining a gang was often the first step toward an early grave.

At the same time, many of the powerful gang leaders who were sent away to prison during the last antigang crusade are now returning back to their old neighborhoods and their old pals. They are stronger but no wiser from their incarceration experience.

The hopeful news is that there is still time for cities like Boston to ward off another eruption of gang violence. This will require a reinvestment, of course, in prevention strategies such as youth athletic leagues and Boys and Girls Clubs, which can respond in a positive way to many of the same needs for attachment that gangs fulfill. It will also require restoring antigang enforcement units to their former strength.

At a time of economic difficulties, it may seem fiscally irresponsible to move in these expensive directions. However, the choice is to pay for the programs now or pray for the victims later. If the past has taught us anything, we know that the victims of gang conflict are not always the bad guys in different colored bandanas, but often true innocents literally caught in the crossfire and many more who become prisoners of fear in their own violence-infested communities.

Dire predictions from criminologists about a continued wave of youth violence for the 1990s never occurred as city leaders across the country responded with aggressive action to combat youth crime and gang violence. Hopefully this will be another occasion when our political and civic leaders step up to change the course of events.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.