Welcome to my Crime and Justice blog! I am a 19 year old criminal justice student at the University of Winnipeg. I advocate for prisoners' rights, human rights, equality and criminal justice/prison system reforms.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Basic needs fuel gangs-- Imprisonment will not address the root of why teens join gangs

Melissa Omelan's job description is both daunting and critical for a city rocked by a wave of violent gang-related crime.
She's the one leading a program that works with the prime targets for gangs, kids who sell drugs or carry weapons like hammers.

Under her watch are two dozen teenagers who are currently in gangs or at risk of joining. Her mission is to keep them for joining, or if they are already in a gang, get them out.
The project co-ordinator of Ndinawe's Turning the Tides gang-prevention program doesn't portray the teenagers in the program as "angels."
However, she says many Winnipeggers don't comprehend that gang involvement is a way for impoverished teenagers to meet their basic needs. About 60 per cent of the kids she works with are actively involved in gang life, many through their families.
"People don't understand the pressures... we ask these kids 'leave your gang' but we're asking them to isolate themselves from their communities and their families," she said.
"That's a really hard thing to ask a kid to do, because when they do that, then what? What do we do with them? Where do they go? Who's their support system?"
Ndinawe, at 472 Selkirk Ave., is in one of the city's most impoverished areas. The program works with kids aged 14 to 19 years old for months or years teaching them employment or life skills.
The program has three other staff members, including 35-year-old mentor Matt Kelly, who stresses that gangs don't attract "bad kids."
The program brings in speakers, and helps kids set up with legal appointments.
"It's very environmental," he said.
Omelan said jailing kids in their teen years only makes them "better criminals" after they're forced to live in a survival-of-the-fittest environment.
Omelan said teens who are dealing small amounts of crack cocaine or marijuana to make money for groceries, clothes or their sibling's diapers don't have an immediate solution if they leave.
"I think poverty's a huge issue.
I think that a lot of these kids, there's this conception that aboriginal street gangs are ruining Winnipeg, and they're at the core of everything bad in the North End, and really, when we talk about crime, we're looking at pettiness," she said.
"They're not the Manitoba Warriors or the Hells Angels, who are moving huge amounts of drugs, who are trafficking women. A lot of these kids, it's how they're taught to met their basic needs or help their families meet their basic needs."
In the gang hierarchy, they're likely to be the lower rungs of the organization, known as "strikers" in street slang.
"They're usually selling minimal amounts of drugs for someone else, or their family is heavily connected and they're kind-of on the outskirts," she said.
Teens who choose to distance themselves lose the physical protection a gang offers, which was part of the initial allure. She said the vast majority of teens in the program who carry weapons like hammers do so for protection, not to maliciously hurt others.
"(Take) a youth who's trying to do the right thing, and take his bus to school, getting jumped and having his head smashed into the concrete," she said.
"You're not only facing the retaliation of the gang you're leaving, but there's still people from opposing gangs who may feel you're still connected so now you're dealing with it from two sides."

Imprisonment will not address the root causes of why teens join gangs and it will not prevent or reduce gang crime or activity. Gangs and drugs are prevalent in the negative prison environment and teens are more likely to become involved and entrenched in that lifestyle if imprisoned. What we need to do, is learn why teens join gangs and develop preventive programs for those at risk or those already involved. We need to understand and then address the root causes of gang crimes instead of imprisonment.

The inner cities are places of fear and hopelessness permeated with an air of depression and anger. Youths see no opportunities or hope. Crime, gangs and drugs are prevalent in these areas. Teens see few positive role models and are negatively influenced by their peers and peer pressure to join gangs. This type of lifestyle is all they ever see and know. Often teens join for a sense of belonging and identity and for protection. They feel the need to belong, if they receive a lack of attention or interaction with their family, neglect or parental non-involvement. They join to feel accepted and to have a sense of family. The inner cities are impoverished and many live in poverty, so teens also join gangs in order to make money. 

Here are some risk factors which lead teens to join gangs: stressful home environment, parental non-involvement, sexual or physical abuse, neglect, ineffective parenting, low parental education, criminal activity by family members, low self-esteem, low motivation, behaviour problems, substance use, poor peer relations, low educational and occupational aspirations, lack community support and resources, high incidence of criminal activity, lack youth employment opportunities, poor academic background, lack recreational facilities and opportunities, negative school environment, lack effective discipline in school, lack student responsibility in school, transient population. 

Here are my ideas for gang prevention: 
- gang prevention and desistance programs for at-risk youth and youth already involved in gangs. 
- mentors for youth
- incentives to complete education, such as money
- variety of recreational facilities, opportunities and activities 
- revitalize inner cities and clean graffiti and vandalism
- parenting skills, education and accountability programs
- assistance for youth to find employment
- education at school about the dangers and consequences of gangs
- programs which teach life skills, stress management, dealing with life challenges, independence, responsibility, and decision making skills. 
- reducing poverty in the inner cities, by making housing more affordable, increasing minimum wage.
- reduce unemployment by assisting individuals in securing employment and providing resources to them.
- family counselling for those where family violence, conflict and dysfunction are issues. 

The Ndinawe Turning the Tides gang prevention program is a great start to curbing youth gang activity and crime. Some of the resources and services they provide are: tutoring, sports and recreation and outings, art, drama, food and housing (food bank and housing support), access to computers for resumes, job searches and school, cultural teachings (healing and sharing circles, powwows, drumming and singing, ceremonies, arts and crafts, workshops, guest speakers), and addictions assistance and outreach. 

Many teens who join gangs, comes from impoverished families and neighbourhoods and many suffer from FASD and behavioural or learning problems. Mental health issues play a huge role in the commission of crimes. 

We need to address mental health issues and increase employment opportunities. We also need to offer teens monetary incentives if they complete high school and offer them special scholarships to college and university if they maintain high marks and participate in volunteer work. We also need to reduce poverty and to overcome poverty, we need to place more emphasis on education.  

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