Gang prevention programs don’t work. It might be surprising to hear this, especially coming from one of the original commissioners on San Diego’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, but here’s why:

  • At best, prevention programs strive for normalcy, nothing greater. If successful, they may stop something from happening, but they do not create new behaviors in place of the old behaviors.
  • Typically, prevention programs cast too wide a net. Gang expert Malcolm Klein suggests that such programs cause the issue in question to become perceived as more prevalent than it may actually be, thus normalizing the negative behavior for a larger audience that may not have been otherwise exposed to or affected by the problem.
  • At worst, prevention programs provide free advertisement for negative behaviors. Even more detrimental than merely normalizing the issue, this advertisement heightens the very appeal of the negative behavior.

If gang prevention programs, in essence, promote negative behaviors, why do law-abiding communities seek to create so many programs that promote gangs?

An effortless shift in perspective can transform the counterproductive nature of prevention programs by asking one simple question: What should promotion programs actually promote? The list is virtually endless: go to college, support a social cause, volunteer, participate in organized sports, or join clubs at school and in the neighborhood.

In contrast to prevention programs, positive promotion programs are successful because:

  • Positive promotion programs strive for individuals to accomplish something that normally would not occur.
  • Positive promotion programs offer options where individuals can select activities that best suit their budding interests.
  • Positive promotion programs can popularize the appeal of productive behaviors.

 For potential and fringe gang members, positive promotion programs are essential to averting criminal, violent behavior by making productive activities socially acceptable among peer circles otherwise vulnerable to the lure of gang lifestyles. Gangs are a default culture where membership is allowed to flourish only when productive activities are not adequately promoted toward its target audiences.

 In sum, any program with gang prevention as its premise is doomed to fail.

However, gang prevention will be the product of all promotion programs that popularize productive behaviors.

Christopher Yanov worked with gang members in the San Diego region from 1996-2001 before starting Reality Changers, a program that targets low-income, inner-city youth and has awarded more scholarships to college bound students than any other single organization in San Diego County for the past three years.

— CHRISTOPHER YANOV

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