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Gangs Not In Your Backyard? Think Again.

Kevin Litman-Navarro |
March 27, 2014 | 2:25 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Approaches to curtail gang activity have varied greatly since gangs first became a widespread problem in American society. From intervention and prevention programs to mass incarceration, lawmakers have enacted a veritable cornucopia of statutes to curb the negative effects of gang activity.  

(Aston Reynolds, Flickr Commons
(Aston Reynolds, Flickr Commons

Lately, however, many Americans from more affluent areas have been turning their backs on the issue, instead focusing their concerns on keeping gangs as far away from themselves as possible through a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) approach.  

The logic is as follows: there are no gangs in my neighborhood, so they don’t negatively affect me, therefore why should I care?

Even with this apparent lack of compassion aside, there are quite a few reasons why gang activity affects remains relevant to everyone—even if it remains invisible.

1. Economic costs affect ALL taxpayers

Regardless of whether or not you live in a community where gangs are a significant presence, everyone pays (quite literally) for the effects they have on society. Gang activities cause a significant increase in the amount of taxes paid, both at the state and federal level.  

About 5 percent of state tax dollars are allocated to corrections (i.e. prisons, juvenile justice programs, parole, etc.). This number has been steadily growing over the years, now comprising approximately $50 billion of overall state budgets. Because gang activity induces a higher crime rate, it leads to larger prison populations, sucking up taxpayer dollars for the incarceration of gang members.

On the federal level, gang activity also correlates with increased spending. Negative effects of increased gang activity include unwanted teen pregnancies, more high school drop outs, and elevated unemployment. An increase in these numbers would result in more taxpayer dollars being spent on safety net programs including food stamps, unemployment payments, school lunches and various programs to aid abused and neglected children.

2. Gang activity in supermarkets — wait what?

Drug gangs have recently expanded their market from the inner city streets to suburban supermarkets in neighborhoods were people feel insulated from such gang activity.

No, you will not find canned cocaine and packaged PCP on shelves, but what you might place in your shopping cart could be even more dangerous—counterfeit food products.

This practice has become shockingly prevalent as of late, especially in Europe.  Because the food economy is less regulated than say, the drug economy, drug lords have begun selling fake products under the threat of a much less severe penalty.  

Fake food can cause sickness, long-term health conditions, and death in unaware shoppers. Candy has been found with red dye Rhodamine B, a known carcinogen, and items labeled as seafood products have contained fake or untraceable meat ingredients.

According to the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, Americans pay $10 to $15 billion annually on fake food, making the counterfeit food market quite lucrative for gangs and their affiliates. 

3. Furthering the disenfranchisement of minorities

America was founded on the principles of equality and democratic rights for all citizens.  Sure, we didn’t start so hot, but have worked to expand democracy (voting rights) since the birth of our country. 

Yet, gang activity greatly detracts from the bedrock of citizen democracy on which our entire society is based. Because the majority of gang members are racial minorities from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, it is minorities that are disproportionately incarcerated for gang-related offenses, which are usually drug-related and result in felony convictions. Felons are stripped of an alarming number of rights we hold to be intrinsic, including the right to vote.

So as gangs continue to pull in minority youth, we are systematically disenfranchising entire populations, particularly poor African-Americans.

4. Commuter gangs

A recent injunction enacted in the Echo Park Area aims to reduce gang activity by preventing suspected gang members from associating in public. While the combined effects of the injunction and rising property prices have forced many gang members out of Echo Park, they continue to violate this injunction by returning on the weekends.

Critics argue that the injunction is too vague to be applied fairly, while proponents welcome it as a way of reducing crime.

Even if the injunction is successful, however, it will have only moved gang members away from a single concentrated area, creating a sort of commuter gang.

5. Illegal sex trade

A recent study conducted by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center analyzed the underground commercial sex economies of eight major U.S. cities over the last three years. The findings: gangs are becoming more involved with prostitution and sex trafficking—especially in California.

The study claims that gangs often cooperate to maximize their profits, redrawing territorial lines or sharing a hotel from which prostitutes work, jointly capitalizing on a vast hidden economy.

When compared with drug trafficking or armed robbery, many pimps claimed that sex work entails much less risk. As put by one such pimp, “no one gets locked up for pimping”.

Clearly there is no shortage of reasons we should all be invested in finding the solution to gang activity. So let’s drop the selfish act, lose the NIMBY attitude and gang up to fix these problems.

Reach Staff Reporter Kevin Litman-Navarro here.



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