Youth Violence, Gang-Led Or Otherwise, Appears To Be On The Rise: How The OJJDP Combats It

November 15, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Gang activity in the United States is said to have declined in the mid-1990s to 2000. But between 2001 and 2005, it increased again and stayed constant until around 2012, per government estimates. From around 2002-2012 annual estimates of the number of gangs have averaged about 25,000 nationally and the number of gang members has been about 750,000, according to Youth.gov. While there appears to be no official data yet for the next decade leading into the 2020s, reports of spikes in violent crime, including youth gang-related incidents, have appeared repeatedly across news outlets in recent times.

For example, just last month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and its law enforcement partners in the Southern District of California launched an effort to strategically prosecute the region’s most violent and prolific offenders who are believed to be most responsible for the spike in violent crime, including those with criminal history and criminal gang affiliation who commit gun crimes. Gang-related shootings increased 129% in the first half of 2021 compared with 2020, and more than 1,000 guns were recovered pursuant to criminal investigations, the press release from the Justice Department announcing the initiative said.

Last month in Colorado, a violent shootout between three teenagers left one of them dead and an entire community worried about their youth. While it was unclear whether that particular incident had any kind of gang involvement or not, violent teen-on-teen shootings are on the rise, a news report quoted a violence prevention expert with the University of Colorado, David Bechhoefer, as saying. Early this month, a fight at a city park involving juveniles with handguns underscored concerns of the High Point Police Department Chief in North Carolina about the escalating trend of youth violence.

In South Dakota, street gang members in Rapid City are allegedly becoming less fearful of consequences, per a report published today. And many gang members start young the report says, citing Tony Harrison, captain of Investigations for the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, who has been investigating street gang activity in Rapid City and Pennington County over the course of his 25-year career in law enforcement. In the report, Harrison goes on to say that he has seen pictures of toddlers dressed in gang attire and would not even be surprised if someone showed him an eight-year-old “throwing gang signs.”

As part of the justice and law enforcement body initiative in the Southern District of California, which we mentioned earlier, the San Diego County District Attorney also said they were investing in prevention efforts with community members to redirect youth into positive and healthy lifestyles. Vista Community Clinic received a grant to support its “Resilience” program, which helps justice system-involved youth chart a more positive life course. The program serves teens in the City of Oceanside which faces challenges created by multiple gangs with hundreds of members, many of them minors, the DOJ statement added.

In the rest of this piece, we give you a brief introduction to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) Youth Violence Prevention and Reduction Program.

Gangs have an adverse impact on youth and communities across America. Over the years, youth gangs have become increasingly complex, lethal, and resistant to control, the OJJDP said in a post last year, a concern that we mentioned was echoed much more recently in South Dakota. According to the OJJDP, sustainable solutions must involve “comprehensive approaches that contain the spread of gang activity, protect youth who are most susceptible, and hold those engaged in gang violence appropriately accountable.”

The OJJDP’s anti-gang violence portfolio combines prevention, intervention, and suppression programs to help identify and address the root causes of youth gang activity within affected communities. These programs are based on the core components of the OJJDP Comprehensive Gang Model: The Model is a proven framework for coordinated action that helps communities prevent youth from joining gangs and reduce street gang violence and crime, per the OJJDP.

There are five strategies under the Model. These integrated strategies are designed to offer a comprehensive, collaborative approach to prevent and reduce gang violence, the Office says. The five strategies, per the OJJDP, are:

  • Community Mobilization — Involvement of local citizens, including former gang members and community groups and agencies, and the coordination of programs and staff functions within and across agencies
  • Opportunities Provision — The development of a variety of education, training, employment, and reentry programs specific to engaging gang-involved youth and young adults
  • Social Intervention — Youth-serving agencies, schools, street outreach workers, grassroots groups, faith-based organizations, law enforcement agencies, and other criminal justice organizations reaching out and acting as links
  • Suppression — Formal and informal social controls procedures and accountability measures
  • Organizational Change and Development — Development and implementation of policies and procedures

Grantees work to change community members’ attitudes regarding violence, provide youth with alternatives to gang membership, and educate them about the risks of gang involvement, the Office says on its website. OJJDP also funds services — including mentoring, life skills training, and substance abuse counseling — for gang members who want to desist from gang activity. OJJDP funding helps communities gather and share data about their gang problem so they can develop effective strategies to suppress youth gangs and sustain reductions in youth violence.

The Office also funds programs to support youth victims of gang violence. Youth who experience violence are susceptible to behavioral and mental health challenges, including perpetrating violence in the future, substance use, depression, academic difficulties, and suicide, it adds. OJJDP funding helps service providers identify, treat, and seek justice for victims.

Meanwhile, the National Gang Center provides information, training, and customized technical assistance to help communities address their unique gang problems. The center offers an array of resources, including the Strategic Planning Tool and the OJJDP Comprehensive Gang Model. In October 2009, the National Youth Gang Center, which had been funded by the OJJDP since 1995, merged with the National Gang Center, which had been funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance since 2003. 

There are several other aspects of how the OJJDP, law enforcement agencies, and other programs tackle the problem of youth violence, especially youth gang-led violence. We will cover more on this in the next part of this mini series, including how schools and parents can help prevent children and youth from getting involved in gangs.