The Challenge of Gang-Based Offending – a Collaborative Approach

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The identification of offenders as members of a criminal gang is generally not an essential criterion in the prosecution of offences. It is not therefore possible to ascertain the precise number of criminals who are members of criminal gangs operating in this country. Nor is it possible to provide statistics of the kind sought by the Deputy.

– Dermot Ahern, Minister For Justice, Equality and Law Reform, 13th of May 2010.

In Ireland the problem of gang-based offending remains a relatively recent phenomenon of which little hard-data is available. In part this may be due to what Ian O’Donnell has described as the paucity of socio-legal research that exists in Ireland. This paucity of empirical evidence is exemplified by the quote from then Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern.

Unfortunately, the narratives on gang-based offending has tended to be dominated by tabloid language without any constructive analysis exemplified by the commonly used term ‘gangland’. This is a term I have seen and heard used in news bulletins, academic papers and policy documents. It is a term borrowed from a tabloid vision of crime which writes off swathes of urban communities as ‘gang-land‘.

Another difficulty with allowing tabloid culture to guide the debate on this serious issue is that the focus tends to be on the upper levels of criminal activity-those given catchy nicknames and names with violent stories attached to them tend to dominate. The problem here is that this type of public debate limits both our understanding and response to the issue. Even a brief analysis of the literature written on this area illustrates that it is predominantly young men at the lower levels of criminal activity that are most at risk of being harmed and causing harm to others. However on a more positive note the research in the area indicates that this is also a group that be reached and given better choices in their lives.

The most notable  response to gang-based offending in Ireland has been the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill introduced by Dermot Ahern. The bill was widely criticised for the rushed nature with which it was implemented and the serious repercussions it may have within the Irish legal system While a legislative response is understandable and necessary it must come with a considered approach which takes account of all aspects of the targeted problem. We have not seen any attempt to introduce criminal justice legislation that would be tough on the causes of crime as well as those committing the crime.

What I outline below is a partnership approach known as a pulling levers focussed deterrence strategy which has been utilised to good effect in moving young men away from serious offending in numerous jurisdictions in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Pulling Levers Focused Deterrence

Pulling levers focused deterrence strategies have generally been associated with large reductions in violent crime in the U.S. and British cities where they have been adopted.  Braga (2008) describes this approach as an:

adaptable and dynamic analytic approach (which) provides an appropriate framework to uncover the complex mechanisms at play in gang violence’.

This type of deterrence strategy is based upon deterrence theory which broadly asserts that crime will diminish when the costs of committing crime are perceived to be greater than the rewards.

Focused deterrence is grounded in a clear rejection of violence by the community and other stakeholders (Skubak Tillyer, 2010).  Any discussion around the form of a focused deterrence strategy must be prefaced by acknowledging that the implementation of the strategy needs to be location-specific and should happen as part of wider policy developments. However, there is a general acceptance of the necessity that certain process elements would be included in any such strategy:

At its most basic a strategy must contain the following elements-

  • ?selecting a specific crime problem to be addressed,
  • the convening of appropriate law enforcement and community agencies to form a working group,
  • conducting research into the key offenders, group dynamics and behaviour
  • drawing creatively on a range of sanctions in response to gang members/groups offending behaviour (known as ‘pulling levers’)
  • ?creating viable opportunities for those involved in gang-based offending,
  • targeting social services and community agencies to gang members/groups to run parallel to the ‘pulling levers’, and,
  • the clear communication of the message to offenders that their behaviour will no longer be tolerated by the community.

(adapted from Kennedy, 2006)

“Real partnership”

These types of strategies rely heavily on partnership among statutory, voluntary and community interests. This partnership allows the interest groups to speak in ‘one clear voice’ and communicate directly with the targeted group that their behaviour will no longer be tolerated and will be met with severe sanctions but that they will be supported if they want to move away from their behaviour. This communication can be done through a range of sources such as community police, probation officers or community workers. Given that those who are involved in gang based offending tend to be known to an array of agencies, the message can be repeated from a number of different standpoints. While a good level of partnership is considered vital for the smooth operation of these initiatives it does come with some pitfalls. Skubak Tillyer (2010) observes that many issues surrounding the sustained success of focussed deterrence initiatives can be traced back to the varied and, sometimes, conflicting interests of various partners.

Notwithstanding this, there is evidence that partnership can be utilised to good effect in these strategies. For example, the Safer Neighbourhoods Programme in Chicago, Illinois utilised a range of statutory agencies in its work without rancour and achieved its goal of reducing the homicide rate

Given the type of crime these initiatives are trying to address it is not possible to have a ‘control group’ as that would require leaving part of a problem area or community without a potential service. Combining this with the complex and often times entrenched nature of gang-based offending detailed measurement and consistent evaluation of the effect of these strategies is required. This academic input serves a number of purposes. Firstly, it allows strategies to be targeted in a focused manner addressing the underpinning issues which act to support gang-based offending. Secondly, it allows programmes to measure how effective strategies have been in targeting an issue and finally as noted by Tillyer (2010) the systemic collection of data allows programme operators to respond to changes in target problems, communities or service delivery.

Pulling levers is a violence reduction strategy that combines problem-solving and focussed deterrence with linkages to services and opportunity provision (Corsaro and McGarrell, 2009), it could be described as a sophisticated ‘carrot and stick’ strategy. Law enforcement agencies aim to exploit the lengthy criminal records of  individuals involved in gang-based offending by ‘pulling every lever’ legally available when violence occurs (Braga, Kennedy and Tita, 2002). These groups tend to be vulnerable to sanctions due to the level of their offending behaviour. Kennedy at al, (2001:198) note that:

‘the chronic involvement of gang-members in a wide variety of offences makes them vulnerable to a co-ordinated response’.

Running parallel to the enforcement of all available levers by the police comes the offer of social and vocational support. These supports have traditionally been provided by a range of agencies dependent on community make-up and resources.

‘these supports and opportunities need to be viable and genuine if they are to help the young people involved’

It is in this problem-solving element of a pulling levers strategy that social work and probation services find their role providing the social support in conjunction with the message of stricter sanctions.  The assistance of community groups and social services who are often times trusted by the offenders allows the message to get through that the target of the new strategy is their behaviour rather than they being personally targeted (Sherman, 1993). The aim is to increase the legitimacy of the deterrence message whilst at the same time providing legitimate opportunities as an alternative to criminal activity. More traditional criminal justice strategies have tended to be reactive and sporadic in nature without a clear alternative being presented to the offender. This has often been the criticism of criminal justice responses in Ireland which have tended to be created on an ad hoc basis.

This type of intervention with gang offenders should is not be viewed as an offer to gangs  or a ‘soft approach’ but rather it is a guarantee that any type of offence committed by one gang member will increase the pressure on the gang as a whole. There is an inherent challenge here in trying to ‘sell’ this strategy to communities who may feel that people are not being suitably punished for their offending behaviour. This can be addressed though through having a constructive dialogue with communities about the factors that nurture criminal behaviour.

The first, and best known, use of this of approach was developed in Boston, Massachusetts  in 1996 as a response to the city’s spiralling youth homicide rate. Following the success of this approach in Boston it was replicated in a number of American cities in an effort to tackle a range of gang based offences namely homicide and open air drug dealing (Corsaro, 2009).

‘Boston’s Operation Ceasefire’

‘The Boston Gun Project applied the basic principles of problem-oriented policing to a substantial public safety problem.Addressing this problem required the involvement of multiple agencies and the community, as well as substantial investments in analysis, coordination, and implementation. The experience of the Gun Project suggests that deploying criminal justice capacities to prevent crime can yield substantial benefits. The problem-solving orientation of the project means that the problem definition, the core participants, and the particulars of the intervention evolved over the course of the collaboration.’

Reducing Gun Violence, The Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire Research Report.

The pre-eminent example of a focussed deterrence initiative was ‘Operation Ceasefire’ which was developed from the Boston Gun Project in 1996 in an attempt to deal with the rising rates of gun crime in Boston, a trend which was reflected across many large American cities.  Prior to the time of this programmes existence, Boston averaged 44 youth (under-24) homicides per annum (Braga et al, 2001:196).

‘Operation Ceasefire’ was constructed with two main elements. Firstly, it aimed for police to target those who were supplying guns to young men. Secondly, it wanted to create a strong deterrent away from gang culture (Kennedy et al, 2001). The second of these elements was the aforementioned ‘pulling levers’ strategy. It was clearly communicated  to gang members that their violent behaviour would no longer be tolerated by the city and that all possible legal ‘levers’ would be used to curtail their behaviour.  At the same time as the ‘pulling levers’ message was being delivered social services (probation, parole officers and community groups) reached out to gang members with the offer of viable alternatives to their ‘gang lives’ (Kennedy et al, 2001).  There was no list of gang members but in effect gang members picked themselves for intervention by their very involvement in gun crime. This was similar to the strategy employed in Stockton, California when law enforcement and communities agencies developed a focussed deterrence to deal with their gang violence problems (Braga, 2006)

A key feature of the approach in Boston was their prioritisation of cases involving violence perpetrated by gang members being prioritised by the District and State Attorneys and, where appropriate, federal prosecutors (Braga et al 2001).

A US Department of Justice evaluation report of Operation Ceasefire indicated a statistically significant reduction in gang related offences including a 63% reduction in the monthly number of youth homicides, a 32% reduction in incidents of the public reporting gunshots and a 25% reduction in city-wide all-age gun assaults.  Braga et al (2001) tested Operation Ceasefire to evaluate if its successes had been due to other initiative or part of a broader decrease in violent behaviour in similar geographical areas. They found that the reductions in violence in Boston during the lifetime of the research could not be explained by any rival causes such as public health initiatives or wider patterns of decreasing violence in major US cities.

‘Glasgow’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence’

The results demonstrated that gang members are eager to reintegrate into society and the majority of them joined the initiative hoping they may find a job and stability in their lives. We identified the strength of this multi-disciplinary intervention and listed recommendations made by the participants.’

Conclusion of CIRV’s Year 2 Report (2011)

Glasgow’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) formally began in the east end of the city in October 2008 with the aim of reducing incidences of serious violence committed by gang members within two years (Violence Reduction Unit, 2009:4). CIRV operates as a multi-agency platform in an effort to utilise the resources of the many stakeholders in the city. The initiative draws on police intelligence, social work, probation, education and community partners in the development of services to assist young gang members to adopt more pro-social lifestyles.

The initial phase of CIRV’s implementation involved the forensic gathering of information about the city’s gangs which gave them extensive information on young men involved in street gangs. This information was collated and placed on a ‘CIRV gang database’ (Violence Reduction Unit, 2009:8).  From this database a decision was made to directly target gang-members through police, probation and community contacts. Individuals who were completely disengaged from all services were reached out to by CIRV key workers.

In keeping with the principle of direct communication, these targeted individuals were informed of  Self-Referral Sessions (SRSs). These SRSs were held at Glasgow Sheriff’s Court and were used to clearly communicate the message to the young men that their behaviour was unacceptable and would no longer be by the community.  This message was delivered by a range of people representing the community, victims and ex-offenders. The message was re-iterated by senior police officer that support would be available for those wanting to make positive changes in their lives but that should any member of a gang commit a serious assault the gang would be targeted as a whole without exception. At the conclusion of the session, offenders were given cards with a confidential phone number and details of a ‘one stop shop’ where they could access any information about what was being offered to them. These services included counselling, mentoring and vocational support as well as continued access to social work and probation services.

At the end of the first year of the programme there had been a  reduction of 46%  in engaged client offending (Violence Reduction Unit, 2009:24). While this figure is heartening it needs to be qualified against trends that have been seen in other jurisdictions where this strategy has seen initial dramatic reductions but a slow increase when the programme is not nurtured.


As noted at the outset the problem of gang-based offending  in Ireland has tended to be defined mainly through the tabloid press and other media outlets. The difficulty with these definitions are that they tend to caricature serious offenders and ignore the countless young people who are drawn into criminality in communities blighted by gang-based offending. Anecdotally, criminal justice agencies in Ireland are aware of young men either offending at the behest of more serious offenders or loosely formed in to gangs themselves for the purpose of offending. These young people put themselves at risk of causing harm to individuals and the wider community. They also place themselves at risk of harm given the nature of the lives they are living. It is these type of young men who would best be targeted by the strategy outlined above. What is described here is a strategy which rather than seeking to punish unwanted behaviour only also offers genuine alternatives. Further this strategy provides more scope to look at other issues which impact on offending such as masculinities

Pulling levers focussed deterrence strategies have proven to be effective with those based in the day-to-day cyclical nature of gang-based offending. This would be the case with the young men involved in Glasgow’s CIRV programme. They would be considered to be persistent, serious offenders but not yet past the point of return in terms of their behaviour.

There are undoubtedly challenges for criminal justice stakeholders in trying to implement this type of programme. It requires various agencies, often with competing goals, working collaboratively in a very sophisticated way. Also it can require certain professionals to accept that what they have been doing, while well intentioned, may not be effective.  As identified by Skubak Tillyer (2010) it can be difficult to sustain the reductions in offending without ongoing reappraisal of the strategy.  However, notwithstanding these challenges, the benefits of pulling levers focussed deterrence strategies are evident in terms of reducing serious gang-based offending and moving people towards happier, safer lives. I would also add to further benefits to these strategies. These strategies give disenfranchised communities the opportunity to work with criminal justice agencies rather than being worked on.

Pulling levers focussed deterrence strategies do not provide magical solutions to the complex and entrenched problem of gang violence. However, in light of their successes in other jurisdictions and Ireland’s difficulties with gang-based offending with they are worthy of further examination and debate in an Irish context.

Darren Broomfield is a practicing social worker and academic with research interests in social justice, social policy and criminal justice.