New approaches to youth crime and gang violence

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Last week, I was on the subject of youth/drug/gang crime, which gives every impression of being out of control in many places despite official, and arguably misleading, statistics showing that crime is dropping. I also bemoaned the right-left straitjacket into which the issue is locked and which prevents it from being properly ventilated at the political level.


Since we're into new beginnings in Nova Scotia with the NDP government, the time is right for a new shot at it. And here's something to think about: an eye-opening movement afoot in the U.S. that might well have some application here.

This approach -- get this! -- confronts criminal gangs with a moral argument. In dramatic group forums or "call-ins" with a closely rehearsed protocol involving ex-cons, crime victims, police, street-wise clergy and outreach and social workers, gang members are presented with the brutal consequences of their actions on others, are asked to stop, and are given a phone number to call for help with counselling or employment if they want to drop the life of crime.

The first full-dress affair was in Cincinnati in 2007, and was aimed at the city's horrendous gang-related murder rate. Within a year, that murder rate had dropped by half. The movement has now spread to 61 American cities, with mostly similar results, despite some setbacks.

The system is also being applied to drug-dealing. The first attempt was in High Point, N.C. (pop. 90,000), where there was an open-air drug market that police, despite constant arrests and harassment, were unable to shut down. The very next day after the group forum, it disappeared and apparently hasn't returned -- to the astonishment of authorities.

The idea is mainly that of David Kennedy, a New York professor who started with two assumptions.

First, neither the conservative approach ("tough on crime") nor the liberal one (remove root causes: poverty, injustice, etc.) work with regard to gangs.

Second, the gangs are relatively few and their members largely known to police, and those who've had any contact with the justice system can be herded up and influenced. This is the reality around us too.

Kennedy had an epiphany when, as part of his research, he accompanied police into a crack-epidemic area of Los Angeles in the 1980s. "I couldn't believe my eyes," he told a writer for the New Yorker magazine. "I stood there and watched civilization coming apart." We've been getting glimpses of that even in Nova Scotia where, like elsewhere, we have trouble facing the civilizational evil which is the drug trade because drug consumption is right into the middle class. (For the whole story, check the New Yorker, June 22).

Here's something else. At the national level, the Harper government introduced a number of changes to criminal law that died with the last Parliament, including changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act that would allow judges to take deterrence into consideration when sentencing youth and that would allow youth involved in violent crimes to be kept incarcerated during their trial. It intends to reintroduce them.

Although I've had problems from top to bottom with this government, this should be passed -- that is, the government should introduce the changes without its habitual political trickery and the opposition should also put its hang-ups aside and find common ground.

The idea is not -- or shouldn't be -- to put more young people in jail, although the option must be there to do so in extreme cases.

Rather, it's a question of restoring respect for the justice system. Youth gangs, and sometimes older criminals using youths to do their dirty work, are freely abusing it on the perception that under-18s aren't subject to the law, and the general public is coming to the same conclusion.

I mentioned to Sgt. Michel Lacroix, head of my local RCMP detachment covering rural Yarmouth County, a story I heard about someone rebuking a 17-year-old about his life of crime. To which the youth responded that he was going to quit at 18, when the law kicked in. I thought he'd be surprised. "Oh, that's quite common," he said. Indeed, these youth gangs are "very cognizant of the law and what our powers are."

On top of that, he said, his frustration rising, "when we apprehend a youth, we have to read him eight pages -- eight pages! -- basically telling him not to talk to the police. Then he gets a free lawyer who tells him not to talk to the police."

There's been a long see-saw between getting hard and getting soft on youth crime since the first law was introduced in 1908. Now it must be tweaked again, keeping in mind that youths are not adults.

With youth gangs and the drug trade generally, a will to face it must be found in the realization that whatever we've been doing -- despite some good work at the street level by many police officers, social workers and others -- is not enough.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Herald.

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