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Alexandra Crossley: Disrupting the gangs that feed the conveyor belt to crime

Alexandra Crossley of the Centre for Social Justice recommends action against gangs in the fourth part of our series on lifting young people off the conveyor belt to crime. Previous entries have looked at early intervention, family and parenting and community policing.


The involvement of street gangs in the violence and criminality that exploded onto our streets last week comes as no surprise to those working in Britain’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Over the past ten years, an undercurrent of gang culture has been simmering beneath the surface of mainstream society.

Central and local government action to tackle this problem has been inadequate and as a result, street gangs have become a way of life for thousands of young people.  Worse still, lives have been tragically lost.

Inaction cannot be blamed on confusion. We know what factors drive gang involvement. Family breakdown, in particular fatherlessness, is at the heart of the problem: the gang gives young people in our most deprived communities a sense of belonging and safety, where a family does not. Similarly, for young people growing up in neighbourhoods with worklessness and dependency, educational failure and a poverty of aspiration, the gang offers a way out. It can offer a lucrative alternative to mainstream employment (some gang members earn £1,000 a week at age 14) as well as status and power. For many, gangs have the answer to the ills of society’s most disenfranchised and deprived young people.

In this alternative world respect is fundamental. To be feared is to be respected; to be respected is to be safe. Violence, therefore, is the currency of choice: the greater the violence, the greater the safety. Typically, violence is triggered by someone from a rival gang entering another gang’s ‘postcode’ (the modern gang is highly territorial); or by an act of disrespect, such as someone looking at a gang member in the ‘wrong’ way. The dealing and use of drugs is also integral to the street gang, and is often seen by members as the best way of making money. And, unsurprisingly, members of gangs are typically prolific offenders; they are often male – although girls are increasingly involved; most are aged between ten and 25; and they tend to be ethnically representative of their local area.

Most crucially, however, we know that there are life-changing solutions to Britain’s street gang crisis. The Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) in Glasgow is just one case in point. Operation Ceasefire in Boston, USA is another. The message from all of these models is clear: we cannot arrest our way out of this problem – prison offers a temporary fix, but often no more. Why? Because the threat of a prison sentence does little to deter a young person who fears for his life; cracking down on the carrying of knives will not address why that young person feels the need to carry a weapon – instead it will only prompt them to pick up a screwdriver in its place. Instead, what is required is a multi-pronged approach combining strong enforcement tactics, with positive intervention and long-term prevention to address the underlying causes of gang involvement. Also fundamental is a model in which all those in contact with young people at risk of gang involvement, or who are in gangs, work together.

If the gang problem is to be tackled effectively, it cannot be treated as the domain of one agency. There is no quick fix: to succeed in tackling gang culture long-term social reform must be implemented – this means strengthening families, improving education, rectifying welfare, tackling debt and addressing addiction. It should not have taken theses riots to put gangs on the political agenda, but now that it is, we must not lose this opportunity to change our inner cities.

Key recommendations (for more detail, read the CSJ’s report Dying to Belong):

Short term

  • A standardised definition of a gang should be adopted universally;
  • Political leadership – a specialist Gang Prevention Unit that works across government should be established, staffed by specialists and academics from the field of gangs and disenfranchised young people. The Social Justice Cabinet Committee should provide political direction.
  • Gang Prevention Zones – small geographic areas with a significant gang problem – should be established and a full needs assessment conducted.

Medium term

  • Use the third sector to break down barriers between police and young people: police forces should make working with local youth organisations part of general practice;
  • Police in Schools: Safer Schools Partnerships should be rolled out to all secondary schools and Further Education and sixth form colleges in Gang Prevention Zones. Each school or college should have a fully operational police officer seconded full-time, either as part of the senior management team or the behaviour and education support team.

Long term

  • Early intervention (see part one of this series);
  • Youth provision and diversion;
  • Education: engage and raise the educational aspiration and achievement of pupils in Gang Prevention zones, and look at ways of tackling disruptive pupil behaviour, truanting and exclusion;
  • Employment: facilitate, encourage and support young people in Gang Prevention Zones to find and retain legitimate employment;
  • Community Mobilisation: a community group should be set up in Gang Prevention Zones to provide the ‘moral voice’ and mobilise the community to tackle gang culture. Further, Politicians and policy-makers should engage with communities in Gang Prevention Zones in order to understand the problem and encourage community action.


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