Monday, September 6, 2010

More Gangs, Less Crime

by Russell S. Sobel

September 6, 2010

Street gangs, such as the famous Crips and Bloods, are often viewed as a cause of crime and violence. Popular media coverage on TV and in the newspapers often portrays the brutal activities of such gangs. This is understandable for the simple reason that areas with more violent crime also have more youth street gangs. The implication would seem clear: to reduce crime, just break up gangs.

However, an article I recently coauthored with Brian J. Osoba, "Youth Gangs as Pseudo-Governments: Implications for Violent Crime," calls this conventional wisdom into question. Our analysis suggests not that gangs cause violence, but that violence causes gangs. In other words, gangs form in response to government's failure to protect youths against violence. The surprising implication of our insight is that efforts to reduce gang activity could actually increase violent crime.

The explanation for this seeming paradox derives from well-established economic theories on how and why governments evolve from situations of anarchy. That literature suggests that within a society without law and order, individuals are under constant threat of being victims of aggression and crime, and small "gangs" evolve to provide protection services to people. By forming groups, people who cannot protect themselves individually can be more secure; an attack on a single member would result in group retaliation. In other words, individuals form gangs for the same reason that national governments form mutual defense alliances such as NATO.

Applying this concept to street gangs suggests that gangs evolve in response to a high level of pre-existing violence in communities. More important, it suggests that the net effect of gangs is to reduce the level of violence—i.e., if the gangs did not exist, there would be more violent crime. In the end, the threat of gang retaliation prevents some violent crimes that would have otherwise taken place.


Read the Paper

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