Chicago’s Youth Violence Epidemic: A Victim of Success?

Chicago’s youth violence numbers remain terrible, both in comparison to broader homicide trends and in comparison to our peer cities. One cause may stem not from the failure of the city’s approach to gangs, but its arguable success.

The Chicago Reporter recently kicked off a new series on youth violence in Chicago, beginning with a piece by Kari Lydersen and Carlos Javier Ortiz. For all the progress that has been made in recent years with regard to violence in Chicago, youth violence remains a difficult problem:

The most dangerous time for young people in Chicago may be the first few years after high school. Since 2008, a total of 247 young people between the ages of 18 and 20 have been murdered in Chicago, nearly as many as the 286 under the age of 18 who’ve been killed during that span.

It’s a frequent subject of coverage; last year NPR devoted a week of coverage to youth violence here, starting off with some chilling statistics:

In Chicago, nearly 700 children were hit by gunfire last year — an average of almost two a day — and 66 of them died. That number is up over the previous year, even though the overall number of homicides in Chicago fell last year to a 45-year low.

I just got my copy of the Chicago Crime Commission’s 2012 Gang Book, and it has a somewhat nonintuitive explanation for why youth violence hasn’t decreased along with other forms in the city.

CPD has pinpointed two causes, among many, for this increase in youth violence and gun possession: 1) Juveniles are now frequently holding leadership positions in gangs. 2) Juveniles choose to carry guns because they feel unsafe in their own neighborhoods. Both of these causes are directly related to the changes in gang structure and operations after the forced demolition of Chicago’s public housing, where many gang members lived. The destruction of their previous territory scattered gangs throughout Chicago, often into rival territory, and splintered their hierarchy into hundreds of independently functioning subgroups, or factions. Without access to their leaders, younger gang members are able to rise to positions of power within their new, smaller gangs. This has caused much intra-gang conflict, since more positions of power are available for the taking. An increase in conflict means an increase in violence, and juveniles feel that they need to carry a gun to protect themselves, even in their own neighborhoods.

Chicago has a lot of old, storied gangs. Between 2008 and 2011, the Gangster Disciples were vastly overrepresented in the number of admitted gang members arrested for murder, being the largest gang in the city (the Gang Book estimates 10,000-30,000 members, a high estimate that would give them a population equal to Niles). It’s also an old gang, dating back to the 1960s. Most of the gangs profiled by the Gang Book date back to the 1960s and 1970s, with a couple going back all the way to the 1950s. Very few originated in my lifetime, and those tend to be smaller.

Various public policy developments since then, particularly the tearing down of public housing, have shaken up their long-established hierarchies:

The surge of lower level power with the rise of factions has allowed juveniles, typically between the ages of 15 and 17, to gain authority in their neighborhoods, a phenomenon previously uncommon in the original system…. These splintered factions do not form alliances. They fight. A gang that, say, controlled an eight-block radius in the past may now be broken into eight different, one-block factions that compete for turf. The amount of fracture is startling. The Chicago Police, for instance, has been able to identify over 200 factions of the Gangster Disciples (GDs) alone within the city limits, and most of the conflicts that arise within the neighborhoods they inhabit can be attributed to various GD factions fighting other GD factions. There are, in effect, over 200 gangs within the GD gang…. This disordered hierarchy implicates juveniles, who are now increasing their criminal involvement and holding leadership positions within factions, and it makes the policing of gang activity progressively more complicated, since law enforcement cannot as easily cripple the gang from the top, down.

And the results can be seen throughout the city:

Dorothy Papachristos, who works with at-risk youth from the North Side as head of Communities Dare to Care, said the increased violence in Uptown stems from the Gangster Disciples and Black P Stones forming an alliance against the Conservative Vice Lords over drug territory.

“Gangs are dysfunctional. They’re fractured,” Papachristos said. “So many of their heads are locked up.”

In short, one possible element of the persistence of youth violence in the city isn’t a policy failure, but arguably a success: the combination of tearing down gang-friendly public housing projects and the pursuit of gang hierarchies by law enforcement has changed the nature of gang violence in Chicago. Which is not, of course, an argument against those public-policy changes; the institutionalization of Chicago’s gangs is often cited as a reason the city has a more intense gang problem than its peer cities. Even the best of public policy initiatives can lead to newly problematic outcomes.


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