The Difficulties of Relocation for Gang Members
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Advocates say that relocating gang members is the best option, and in some cases the only option. But what are the perils?
For more, we turn to former federal prosecutor Paul Butler. He's now a law professor at George Washington University and joins us by phone from the nation's capital.
Professor Butler, good to have you back on the program.
Professor PAUL BUTLER (Professor of Law, George Washington University): It's great to be here, Farai.
CHIDEYA: So give us a little bit of response to Leoneda Inge's piece. You know, experts suggest that relocating young gang members isn't ideal in every situation, but it's a good last resort possibly. How do you see it?
Prof. BUTLER: The problem, Farai, is that it's a Band-Aid approach. It's short term and it really more hides the problem than it helps heal it. You know if it saves even one or two lives and makes it more difficult for people to be hunted down, then who can argue with it? But in terms of all the good that law enforcement and community organizations can do with their resources, I don't think that relocating gang members should be a priority.
CHIDEYA: As a former federal prosecutor, and I know you dealt with different types of crimes, what do you think the government's response is to programs like these?
Prof. BUTLER: Well, it kind of reminds of the FBI's famous Witness Protection Program. Butt agents will tell you that it's really difficult for people to go under. First of all, they have all kinds of connections to the communities that they're supposed to leave: families, friends, culture. You might not feel like you have much of a life if you have to leave all those things behind.
But second, this is the age of the Internet. It's really, really hard to hide people. We leave electronic traces; Google is everywhere. So if someone really, really wants to find you, they usually can.
CHIDEYA: And during a recent Justice Department session in Washington on gang issues, a number of advocates discussed relocation with police and church officials. Do you think that there are going to be some rules set around this? Or is it - most of this is happening very much on a case-by-case basis.
Prof. BUTLER: Well, at this point it's mainly ad hoc. But I wouldn't be surprised if law enforcement embraces this in part because police just love to move crime around. And so we're used to this in the inner city: They swoop down on one street corner, they put all their resources there, and sure enough crime goes down on that corner. But everybody knows that the dope boys and the stick-up guys just move down the street. So there's got to be a smarter plan, Farai, than just moving crime from New Orleans to Houston to North Carolina.
CHIDEYA: Well, speaking of New Orleans to Houston. There is a very controversial gun ad right now going on in Houston talking about the “Katricians” and, you know, the armed Katricians and how you've got to go out and buy a gun to protect yourself. Do you think eventually there's going to be a backlash against some of these relocation programs if people find out that neighborhood churches are doing them?
Prof. BUTLER: With gang members there's also often a truce declared among churches, so that's kind of a safe zone. So they don't invade those bases. But in general, anytime you move people from one poor segregated area with miserable schools to another poor segregated area with miserable schools, you shouldn't expect progress.
CHIDEYA: What sort of support systems would be good to put in place? You know, if this is happening, which it is with or without the sanction of the government, what do you think that these gang members need to leave the life permanently?
Prof. BUTLER: Well, people have lots of different reasons for joining gangs. Sometimes they're just a group way of committing crimes. They make it easier. So Enron, for example, is full of gangbangers.
But sometimes gangs are just a bunch of older men. And for children who don't have a lot of older men in their lives, especially African-American kids, that's attractive. Sometimes their business or corporate forums are attractive for who people who want to be leaders, who want to run things but don't have that opportunity.
So one major preventive effort is to create legitimate opportunities for people to succeed, for people to be leaders, and especially for young black boys to be around young black men or older black men who are running things.
CHIDEYA: You mentioned earlier that police in your opinion like to move crime around. And certainly in Los Angeles, where I am right now, you've had cases of suburban communities dumping their prisoners into downtown Los Angeles. What can law enforcement do not simply to move problems around like gangs but to solve the problems?
Prof. BUTLER: Well, prevention is the best cure. And so we have to make joining gangs less attractive for teens. And, Farai, we know how to do that. It's to create opportunities for people to have careers. And lawyers, yes, nurses, engineers, but also plumbers and cable guys and police officer. So it starts with getting kids, and especially boys, to graduate from high school.
You know, we have way too many black and Latino youth who don't do this. And police will say, oh, that's social work; that's not part of our job. But if they want to stop crime, which they do, that's the way to do it. Study after study shows if you get young men to graduate from high school, they're not going to be on the street in gangs or selling drugs.
CHIDEYA: What could this trend of churches and families relocating gang members suggest about the criminal justice system? Doesn't this - isn't this in some way an indictment of failures of policies to turn these kids away from violence?
Prof. BUTLER: It absolutely is. The criminal justice system's main way of dealing with these problems is to lock people up. So now we've got two million people in this country in prison. And that, by the way, is a festering ground for gangs. Prison actually breeds gangs.
So what these organizations and churches are recognizing is that rehabilitation and prevention is the way to go. Not just because it feels good, but because it's good for public safety.
CHIDEYA: Well, Paul Butler, law professor at George Washington University, thank you so much for joining us.
Prof. BUTLER: It's always a pleasure.
CHIDEYA: Coming up, saying goodbye to a political icon, former Texas Governor Ann Richards is laid to rest. And did a controversial television host help spur the suicide of one of her guests? We'll discuss these are other topics on our Roundtable next.
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