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Preventing Kids From Gang-Joining: Collaboration Matters

Tom Simon

Tom Simon, Deputy Associate Director for Science, Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury, Centers for Disease Control

Tom Simon Law enforcement can collaborate with public health, and public health can collaborate with law enforcement in a variety of ways. What I think about is the situation that many chiefs of police are in, for example. When there's an incident of violence in their community, and they're at the podium in front of the media, and they're being asked "What can be done? What is being done to address the problem of gangs, or to address the problem of youth violence in the community?" And they don't need to be at the podium alone, they can be up there with their public health department officials. They can be up there with folks from the educational system talking about primary prevention and what can be done to change the trajectories that kids are on in order to reduce the likelihood that they'll join gangs or reduce the likelihood that they'll be involved in violence. So I really believe that early prevention is key. We know from some of the cost-benefit analyses that have been done that an investment in early prevention pays off dividends in the long run. That by intervening early we can change the trajectory, change the path that kids are on. Reduce the likelihood that they'll become affiliated with gangs, reduce the likelihood then of gang violence, and all the costs associated with incarceration, costs associated with medical care for victims of violence, costs associated with helping, you know, grieving families cope with what they've just experienced. All of those costs can potentially be avoided with effective prevention strategies that address early risk factors and enhance early protective factors.

Why 'Prevention' is the Key

Through primary prevention we can really change the trajectory that kids are on and reduce their risk for a whole slew of problems relevant to public health and criminal justice. So I'm talking about not just gang-joining, I'm talking about the broad array of youth violence-related problems, I'm talking about teen dating violence, I'm talking about substance abuse and I'm talking about delinquency.

Bridging the Gap: What we know and what's happening in the community

So CDC has a new initiative. It's called STRYVE; it stands for Striving to Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere. The goal is to bridge the gap between what we know about what's effective in reducing youth violence and what's happening in communities. We know that in many communities, youth violence prevention strategies are being implemented not because they're based on the best available evidence, but because they are pet projects, they're the projects that have been implemented over time, and people have just become used to them and just feel that they work even in the absence of empirical evidence of their effectiveness. And so we're trying to bridge the gap between the best available evidence and what's happening in communities by providing communities with tools that they can use to make informed decisions about which strategies are most likely to be effective in their community. So this would require the formation of a coalition of multi-sectoral perspectives. And coalition, that would include not just health services and public health but also law enforcement, education, social service agencies, to do a reflection on what's happening in the community. That is, what are the needs that our youth have? What types of prevention strategies are currently available? What's working? What's grounded in empirical evidence? And what else could be done to supplement, to complement those activities? To take advantage of the best available evidence that's out there in terms of research?

So at CDC we're really excited about this book because it focuses on early prevention. You know so much of what's out there in communities around the problem of gang violence and gangs is about suppression, or intervention. And we know how difficult it is to distance an adolescent from gang activity once they're enmeshed in that culture. And so what's so exciting about this book is we're focusing on early prevention strategies. What is it that we can do in communities, working with families, working with schools, to reduce the likelihood that a child would join a gang in the first place. And by doing that, we can change the trajectory that that child is on; reduce the likelihood of a whole range of sequelae that are associated with gang-joining. So I'm talking about gang violence, I'm talking about substance abuse, I'm talking about high-risk sexual behavior. We have a real opportunity to make a difference in kids' lives. So our goal for this book is to really help decision makers within communities and policy makers--those who are on the front lines, you know, making decisions about how limited prevention resources are going to be allocated to, you know, give them some evidence-based principles that they can use to make the best decisions possible.

Date Created: June 1, 2011