Can Gang Violence Be Treated Like a Health Epidemic? | Sojourners

Can Gang Violence Be Treated Like a Health Epidemic?

WASHINGTON — Today’s gang members use social media to communicate and target youth. But health researchers are also using new technology to explore solutions to gang violence.

The United States’ 33,000 gangs have approximately 1.4 million members, according to the National Gang Report, created by the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Association and the FBI’s Safe Streets and Gang Unit.

Many prison and street gangs are utilizing social networks to communicate, the report finds, with Facebook and Twitter as the most commonly used platforms.

The report was one subject of a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C. last week.

“Gangs have become increasingly adaptable and organized, exploiting new technology as a means to recruit, communicate discreetly, target their rivals, and perpetuate their criminal activity,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

While intervention programs and higher prosecution rates have been the primary focus for reducing gang violence for years, some organizations and health professionals are also attempting to create new technologies to decrease gang-related activity, another topic of last week’s hearing.

One of those health professionals is Dr. Gary Slutkin, founder and executive director of advocacy group Cure Violence.

“Violence is an epidemic in the same way that other health epidemics are — it spreads from brain to brain the same way that TB spreads from lung to lung or cholera from intestine to intestine,” Slutkin said. “People's brains copy each other's behavior and it's mostly unconscious. This is the basis of much of violence — in families and on the street.”

Cure Violence is working to “treat” gang membership with a strategic approach that taps into the cycle of violence. They train people in heavily affected communities to detect catalyzing events that lead to joining a gang. The intent is to interrupt individuals’ behaviors before they commit crimes, and continue communicating with them to decrease the likelihood that they and their friends will become involved in gang violence.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), said the U.S. relies too heavily on law enforcement to stop gangs.

“We lock people up, they come home and then we don’t realize that we have communities that have an over-concentration of people who go in and out of prison — which actually kind of continues to the cycle of violence,” she said.

Matthew Valasik, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Louisiana State University, agreed, saying that punishment is just a stopgap approach.

“If it’s just drug-related crime and there’s no violence involved in that transaction, then locking that person up whether it be jail or prison might not be the best use of resources,” he said.

Cure Violence’s model has been used in Baltimore, New York, and Chicago. Independent evaluations from 2012 to 2015 showed reductions of up to 56 percent in homicides and 44 percent in shootings, Slutkin said.