Michael Abrahams | Addressing our gang problem
To say that crime is out of control in Jamaica is an understatement. Our murder rate is so high that a young man in this country would have been less likely to die fighting in the Iraq war than simply living here. Yes, our murder rate is phenomenal.
One of the major factors contributing to crime and violence in our nation is the existence and flourishing of gangs. There are more than 250 gangs operating in our small country, wreaking havoc. Crime-fighting measures include targeting gangs, for obvious reasons. Apprehending and incarcerating gang members and keeping them off our streets is important. But in managing our gang issue, we must examine the factors that place our youth at risk for joining them and address them.
Anthropologist Herbert Gayle has over two decades of experience living with and studying youth gangs and criminal organisations in the Caribbean, Central America, USA, and Europe. Between 2004 and 2014, as part of a large study on multiple murderers, Gayle convinced 17 dons or gang leaders with power over 28 inner-city communities in Jamaica to allow him to profile the youth under their influence. Over that period, he profiled 2,316 young men, and obtained material on their caregivers and gang status.
He found that desire for revenge, economics, protection, turf-identity crisis, and attracting females (many girls love ‘bad boys’), coupled with the low-conviction rates of gang members engaging in criminal activity, are factors influencing youth to join gangs. Probably the greatest factor Gayle found, however, was broken families, and his research revealed the following statistics:
Forty per cent of the gang members he interviewed were from homes where there was constant conflict, especially between caregivers.
More than 60 per cent either had no father in his household or had severe problems with his father/father figure.
Over 75 per cent either had a missing mother, a bad relationship with his mother, or one who was involved in prostitution or a lifestyle that breaks the boy’s sense of attachment, such as having multiple partners.
More than 95 per cent had a missing mother or father or both, or bad relationship with either or both, or suffered from a conflict in the home.
Gayle concluded from his research that “very few boys who have a nurturing home have been found to join a gang”.
According to the National Crime Prevention Centre (NCPC) of the Public Safety Canada, long-term studies of adolescents in Canadian and American cities (Montréal, Seattle, Washington and Rochester) found the following to be the most important risk factors for gang involvement:
Negative influences in the youth's life.
Limited attachment to the community.
Over-reliance on anti-social peers.
Poor parental supervision.
Alcohol and drug abuse.
Poor educational or employment potential.
A need for recognition and belonging.
In formulating plans to combat criminal gang activity, these factors must be taken into consideration and aggressively addressed. The more risk factors a youth experiences, the more likely he or she is to join a gang. At-risk youth must be identified and strident efforts made to engage and rescue them from falling prey to gangs and their nefarious activities.
For example, a boy living in an impoverished inner-city community whose father is incarcerated, and whose mother depends on sex work, and financial assistance from multiple partners for survival, and who beats him mercilessly as a means of discipline, is a prime candidate for being a gang recruit. And there are many such youth in this country.
So, fighting crime must involve reaching out to our youth. Children are most likely to join a gang between the ages of 13 and 15, so early intervention is critical. Parenting programmes must be put in place, and our children taught about what parenting entails. They may learn how pregnancy occurs in science class, but are told little about how to prevent or to plan it, and even less about what to do when they become parents, and several will find themselves in that position before leaving school.
Violence-prevention and conflict-resolution programmes must also be set up. There is a tendency for many of us to resort to violence to resolve conflicts. Violence leaves physical and emotional scars, and often a desire for revenge, and this desire makes one vulnerable to joining gangs.
Staying in school and having a sense of belonging in the school community is also important, as is academic performance, and programmes to address delinquency and substance abuse must be properly implemented. Tutoring, mentoring, life-skills training and supervised recreation are also of vital importance to keep our young people occupied, to motivate them, and give them hope, leaving little room to engage in gang-related activity.
If we do a good job of reducing the pool from which gangs can recruit, we can help to decrease their power and influence, and help to contain crime in our beautiful island. If you know any at-risk youth, please do what you can to encourage, affirm and motivate them, set good examples for them, and possibly rescue them from a life of crime and violence.