24 Apr 2014 No Comments
Yesterday I posted my review of a powerful book called Destructive Justice by Nicholas Frank. (If you missed it, just scroll down to the post below.) Today I am honored to share an insightful, compelling piece he has written to share with us. Without further interference from me, here is Nicholas Frank:
What do you think of when you hear about a kid who is in a gang? Do you think Irredeemable Criminal? Drug Dealer? Violent Thug? How about Loser? Or Predator? Whatever thoughts come to mind, I’ll bet “Love” is not among them.
Whenever I hear of a kid who is in a gang, Love is definitely among my thoughts. You see I am a little closer to the subject of kids in gangs than most people. For a few years, starting when he was around sixteen years old, our second oldest son was a member of an offshoot of the Crips that had set up shop in our town, far away from that group’s urban origins. We hated the choice he made, but we never stopped loving our boy.
Love was of no use, however, in preventing his descent as we lost him to the gang’s criminal world. When he was seventeen he participated in a botched robbery attempt. Fortunately, not a single person was harmed. Nevertheless, he was tried and sentenced as an adult to thirty-two years followed by two consecutive life terms – in other words, for the rest of his life. And, the love that failed to prevent his descent into a criminal world proved equally useless when it came to persuading the judge to find kindness in his heart and to give our son a chance at redemption.
So, another thing I think when I hear that a kid is in a gang is, “Poor kid, they are going to bury you.”
When you love someone, you are stuck on the ride with him wherever it goes. My heart followed our son into prison, but my mind went in search of answers:
- What makes a boy turn his back on his family and join a gang, something that is essentially a repudiation of everything his parents represent?
- Why would a “justice” system bury a confused boy who did not hurt anyone behind concrete and steel for the rest of his life?
To understand how a young boy comes to be a gang member, it is useful to understand some things about gangs. For example, you might not be aware that youth gangs have been a constant part of society virtually since man began to gather in cities. From at least as far back as early 14th century London there are reports of gangs with names like the Mims, the Hectors, the Bugles and Dead Boys. Similar reports come from every era since, including today.
What’s more, the characteristics of street gangs are remarkably consistent through the centuries. They are predominantly youth oriented, engaging in high profile criminal behavior, with distinct and displayed group identities, and are identified by geographic boundaries (turf) that they claim, tag and fight over. A person could be excused for confusing the 14th century Mims with the 21st century Crips, Bloods or Fresno Bulldogs, for that matter, if he were reading a basic description of each gang’s behavior and organization without knowing which one he was reading about.
In a way, the phenomenon of youth gangs is amazing. They have outlasted the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, American and European enslavement of African people, the Spanish Armada and the Spanish Inquisition, the British Empire, the Industrial Revolution, Apartheid, the First, Second and Third Reichs, the USSR, the Cultural Revolution, and the list goes on. All historical attempts to eradicate them have failed, including those being pursued today. If survival and reproduction are measures of evolutionary validity, youth gangs are a valid socio-evolutionary adaptation that is more robust than almost any other form of social organization.
Of course, that begs the question, “Adaptation to what?”
By and large, the theories about gang formation and why kids join them circle around a couple of central themes. On a macro-social level, youth gangs have consistently formed through the ages as alternatives for disenfranchised populations that are essentially blocked from opportunities for success in obtaining money, status, power, etc. in a society’s dominant, socially legitimate systems. In our modern world, the illegal drug trade has brought gangs into communities that had no previous history with them. What’s more, gangs have been erroneously romanticized and delivered into all American homes by the media. Representations of gang members and gang life in song and film have presented them as an attractive, apparently viable option for a much wider group of troubled kids than ever before. On the individual level of why kids join gangs, it is most often because their bonds or ties to family, school and other social/cultural institutions are weak or broken, as those institutions fail them. They seek an alternative to the world that let them down or that appears to have no place for them.
In the case of our son, we certainly failed him as we went through an 8-year custody war that permanently rent the fabric of every element of family. School districts failed in a myriad of ways, not the least of which was to kick him to the curb as part of the idiocy of Zero Tolerance policies for kids who are struggling with drugs. Other institutions such as the medical profession, probation department, family court, law enforcement and more were no better. No wonder he looked outside of our world for a place. Regardless of how much we loved him and how much our actions and reactions came from that love, everything we did seemed to exacerbate his problems. In the end, the adults in his life helped to accelerate what might have been ordinary adolescent defiance into extreme anger, disillusionment, depression, drug abuse, delinquency, gang membership and ultimately life in prison.
There is another fundamental characteristic of youth gangs that I did not mention above. Unless something profound happens to them, most gang members grow up and leave the gangs and their criminal life. That is a fact that is not generally known. In fact, it is precisely what happened to my son, even though he is down for life in prison.
Gangs are predominantly a youth oriented phenomenon. Just as it is with all other forms of juvenile delinquency, as young people pass through adolescence to acquire adult minds and sensibilities, the needs that gang life appeared to fulfill diminish, not to mention the mature individual sees the inherently insufficient ability of their gang to meet those needs anyway. Only the true criminals, many of who would have been criminals in any case, continue to use their gangs to exploit the next generation of disillusioned, confused and temporarily hopeless kids.
And that brings me to why a “justice” system would bury a confused boy who did not hurt anyone behind concrete and steel for the rest of his life. The problem starts with a “justice and corrections system” that directs little to no resources and therefore gives no value to rehabilitation or redemption. Without rehabilitation (i.e., correction through the replacement of damaging behavior with productive behavior) as an ultimate goal, punishment serves no purpose beyond the intentional infliction of harm on offenders. The necessarily unsatisfactory result of a corrections system that includes no rehabilitation – no correction – is a system of ever harsher and ever more permanent punishment. What we have now is a system of condemnation and ruination. Its most obvious symptoms are bloated, overcrowded prisons and a recidivism rate that is the one of the worst in the developed world.
This hateful approach has driven its condemnation/ruination campaign into the treatment of juvenile offenders by trying them as adults more often and by sentencing them far more harshly than ever before. The result has been to destroy kids’ lives before they even finish developing. My son’s devastating sentence is just one example. Rather than acknowledge what the experts in the fields of psychology, sociology, criminology, etc. have known and have proven for years, that adolescents are in a transitory stage of life that often includes temporary forays into delinquent and criminal behavior, and that the overwhelming majority of them will grow out of such behavior if given the chance, those that run our “justice” system too often choose to inflict the most permanently damaging punishment as possible on our errant youth. In other words, they prefer to condemn them before they even have the chance to become. That is the kind of “profound” thing that can turn a kid who would otherwise have outgrown his gang into a permanent gangster.
So, here I am trying to reintroduce to as many people as possible and to our “justice” system, the positive power of forgiveness, rehabilitation, love and ultimately redemption for my son and the millions of others who were slammed and who being slammed into devastating prison sentences for their offenses committed when they were youngsters, gang members or not.
I would love to read your thoughts on the subject.
I hope you’ll check out Nick’s very person, very tragic story: Destructive Justice
Thanks for reading.