“WHAT TO DO ABOUT GANGS AND POVERTY” - by Judge Jim Gray 05/18/08
What should we do about the criminal and antisocial acts and other aberrant behavior of young people in gangs? It’s a tough issue. Law enforcement obviously has its limitations, so instead we need to get to the root of the problems. So what can we do?
In my view, the best chance for success is to show these young people a better way. Show them that they actually can have a better life by having the security of a good job, the gratification of a strong family life, and increased longevity by leading a healthy lifestyle. Okay, that is probably obvious. But how can we so this in a way that will stick?
Well by analogy to other problem behaviors, the most successful way to get drug-addicted people on the road to recovery is to partner them up with someone who has “been there” and is a recovering alcoholic or other drug addict. That is one reason why Alcoholics Anonymous has been so successful. And one of the best ways for our young people to see that things like ditching school, shoplifting and smoking marijuana aren’t “cool” is for them to hear that message at Peer Court from their fellow students. These people “speak the same language” as the addicts and juvenile offenders, and don’t accept their rationalizations and excuses.
Similarly, I believe the best way to get gang members to turn away from antisocial behavior is for former gang members who have evolved into a more healthy and productive lifestyle to share their stories, views and personal experiences with the present gang members. Actually this is now occurring in South Los Angeles with a group of former gang members called “The Businessmen.” It is also happening here in Orange County in a program sponsored by the Orange County Bar Foundation called “Shortstop.” These programs use former gang members and others who have been convicted of felonies to show the young people how the way they are going leads nowhere. And these programs are successful.
In fact, the same approach is now being used by our government in places like Iraq and Palestine, where former terrorists try to educate present terrorists about the futility of their actions, and how they are being callously manipulated by extremists along the way. In other words, someone with a common experience and familiarity with the aberrant behavior, whether it be drug addiction, gang involvement or terrorist activity, will have the best chance of communicating effectively with people who are presently stuck in that behavior.
But it takes more than that - it also takes hope. Most people realize that a person without hope is probably the most dangerous person in the world, because a person without hope has nothing to lose. And it is mostly people who don’t know any better and who have no hope that become drug addicted, gang members and terrorists. So how do we help to provide hope to those people?
In that regard, I will pass along to you something I observed when I was in the Peace Corps. Surprisingly enough, most of the merchants in my small town, which was in the southwestern part of Costa Rica, were Chinese. That included the owner of the place where I and the other high school teachers lived. His name was Chunga, and we lived on the second floor of his “Soda Interamericana,” which was the only place in our town large enough to hold a dance. So one day I asked him why most of the merchants in our town happened to be Chinese.
He told me that after the fall of Chiang Kai-shek in China, most of his supporters fled to Taiwan. But many others kept on coming. Some stopped in Hawaii, but others continued to most of the western coasts of North, Central and South America. And that included Costa Rica. And when they came, they brought with them a cultural tradition.
At about the age of 18 to 20, young men would come to the Elders of the Chinese community and present to them what amounted to a business plan for a proposed business. The Elders would give some suggestions, and then if they decided that the candidate was sincere, able and had a reasonably good plan, they would provide the “seed” money to get the business venture started. (Yes, at least at that time the program was only available for young men.)
This seed money was not a loan, it was a gift. But there would never be a second opportunity. If the young man was eventually successful, he would have the hope that one day he also could be a member of the Elders, and contribute his own funds to perpetuate the tradition. To him, it was a matter of cultural “face,” or pride. But if he was not successful, he might as well leave town, because the shame he would bring upon himself and his family would make his continued presence in the community hard to bear.
Although to my knowledge no other community in our country has this particular tradition to build upon, why could it not be developed? It works!
Personally I deeply admire Bill Cosby. At the moment he is taking a lot of flack in the African-American community for speaking the truth. As you know, recently he has been saying that their community is suffering from unacceptable amounts of violence, single-parent families and a general lack of education. Furthermore, he is saying that it is their own responsibility to turn those conditions around. But that effort will be more successful if it also helps to provide some hope to the people who are involved.
Likewise, if our government would change its foreign aid programs to provide small loans to people at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, instead of grants of large amounts of money to the governments of these economically poor countries, much more tangible progress would be made.
Private organizations do things like this quite successfully today. For example, a group called Oxfam provides small loans to people in poor countries so that they can purchase things like a sewing machine, and thus begin a small business. But Oxfam also ensures that the money is eventually repaid. That promotes personal responsibility. Similarly a group called Heifer International provides farm animals like goats, chickens and cows to families in poor countries, along with an education about how to care for them. These people then have the incentive to take care of the animals, because they can use them for milk, eggs and meat to feed their families. Then eventually the excess food products can be sold to others for the benefit of all. Instead of large amounts of our money ending up in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt government officials, these much smaller amounts of money actually promote and establish businesses, nutrition and self-sufficiency.
We should learn these lessons, and adopt them to our practices both governmentally and privately, and domestically and abroad. Like all economists say, “Incentives Matter!” And an infusion of positive mentors, incentives and realistic hope will have a meaningful chance of reducing gang and terrorist activity and otherwise changing aberrant behavior, as well as promoting a better, safer and more prosperous world. And, by the way, it will cost a great deal less money than we are now spending.
James P. Gray is a Judge of the Superior Court in California, the author of Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It - A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs (Temple University Press, 2001) and Wearing The Robe - The Art And Responsibilities of Judging In Today's Courts, has a blog at http://judgejamesgray.blogspot.com/. http://www.judgejimgray.com, and can be contacted at www.judgejimgray.com.