Specialized Courts for Gang Members

I think America desperately needs specialized criminal divisions that deal with gang members. I thought about this a lot while I was working on an article evaluating the effectiveness of veterans courts. Many court systems now have specialized criminal divisions that deal with veterans; veterans courts are similar to drug courts (specialized divisions that deal with drug addicts and alcoholics); they operate on the premise that veterans in recovery can help veterans in trouble (they also work with the Veterans Administration to connect veterans to health services).

America needs specialized courts for gang members to deal with gangs as a social problem. A specialized court for gang members would support defendants who want to leave their gangs. It would connect former gang members with current gang members with pending criminal charges. Like veterans courts and drug courts, it would have program requirements (like working a job and avoiding their gang associates). It would probably need to protect participants from gangs that don’t want them to leave.

America’s street crime problem is mostly a gang problem and, therefore, a social problem. Gangs are like criminal social clubs. To make streets safer, we need gang members to change their playgrounds and playmates and live normal, productive lives. Unfortunately, America’s criminal justice system does not deal effectively with gangs. If anything, our prisons and jails produce more gang members. We need to try innovative ideas, like specialized criminal divisions for gang members, aimed at reducing the number of people in gangs and decreasing the harms they cause.

There is already a large body of literature that looks at gangs as social groups, the problems of gang violence, and the failures of our criminal justice system to address gang violence. There is a growing literature on specialized courts for veterans, drug addicts, etc. The work needs to apply the lessons learned from existing specialized courts (how to start them, how they work, avoiding mistakes and problems) and apply those lessons to working with defendants who are gang members.

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