Anti-Gang Strategy Taking Shape at Justice Department

By Sarah Larkins | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Tuesday announced a new national strategy to crack down on violent street gangs. The government now believes there are more than 21,500 gangs in the U.S., and more than 700,000 gang members.

"I have directed each U.S. attorney to convene a gang prevention summit in his or her district by the end of this year," Gonzales said. "[The summits will] help coordinate gang prevention efforts among the many partners and interested parties that must be involved if we are to succeed."

The Department of Justice and other federal agencies have recently taken other steps to curb the growth of street gangs. U.S. attorneys around the country last year were directed to designate a coordinator for anti-gang strategies and Gonzales said he has "launched a comprehensive anti-gang initiative in six locations around the nation."

The Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also joined gang prevention efforts in February 2005 with the launch of Operation Community Shield.

According to a Justice Department press release, Operation Community Shield has led to the arrest of 2,388 members of 239 different gangs and the seizure of 117 firearms. More than 900 of those arrested were members of the street gang Mara-Salvatrucha (MS-13), which the FBI identified in 2005 as one of the seven gangs posing the greatest danger to American communities.

According to a 2005 report from the National Drug Intelligence Center, there are more than 713,000 gang members and at least 21,500 gangs in the United States.

However, Scott Decker, chair and professor of the department of criminal justice and criminology at Arizona State University, said recent data shows that gang membership is not on the rise. "Gang membership has stabilized over the last four years and has not gone up," he said.

According to the National Youth Gang Center, results from its 2002 and 2003 surveys of gang activity show that the overall number of local jurisdictions experiencing gang problems may be stabilizing. However, the number of government agencies reporting that their problems with street gangs were "getting worse" increased from 25 percent in 1999 to 37 percent in 2003.

Prevention of gang activity will require efforts outside of law enforcement, Gonzales said.

"To fully combat gang crime, we also need to address the underlying personal, family and community factors that cause people to choose gangs over better, more productive alternatives," he said, adding that the Department of Justice gang prevention initiatives are intended to address these issues.

Decker agreed that there is a "need for a partnership approach to prevention and intervention that would involve and start at the home, but also must reach out and include schools and communities." He cautioned however, that "law enforcement has to be at the core at any response to gangs."

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