Treatment of Gangs/Gang Behavior
in Adolescence

Mark B. Borg, Jr. PhD and Michael R. Dalla MA

Borg, Jr., M. B., & Dalla, M. R. (2005):
Treatment of Gangs/Gang Behavior in Adolescence.
In T. Gullotta & G. Adams (Eds.):
Handbook of Adolescent Behavior (pp. 519-542).
New York: Kluwer/Plenum.


YOUTH GANGS CONSTITUTE THE LARGEST COMPONENT of criminally active adolescent peer groups in the United States (Howell, 2003a). Applying primary prevention and health promotion models to this topic is a complex matter, especially in light of the guiding definition of primary prevention and health promotion used in this volume, which is: "those planned actions that help participants prevent predictable problems, protect existing states of health and healthy functioning, and promote desired goals for a specified population" (paraphrased from Gullotta & Bloom, 2003, p. 9). Research is also hindered by the general lack of agreement among researchers on a common definition of an adolescent gang, the validity of current gang theories, associated risk and resiliency factors, and effective strategies for dealing with adolescent gang behavior (Howell, 2003b).

The latest findings show that no single technique effectively prevents, ameliorates, or suppresses gang activity (Curry & Decker, 2003; Howell, 2003a; Klein, Maxson, & Miller, 1995; Knox, 1995; Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith, & Tobin, 2003). Instead, a range of specifically targeted programs and services have been shown to be much more effective in light of established patterns of delinquency, crime, and gang affiliation (Catalano & Hawkins, 1996; Greenwood, Model, Rydell, & Chiesa, 1996; Hawkins, Herrenkohl, Farrington, Brewer, Catalano, Harachi, & Cothern, 2000; Lipsey, Wilson, & Cothern, 2000). Nevertheless, the majority of strategies (especially within the juvenile criminal justice system) have emphasized suppression techniques that tend to reinforce individual gang member commitment and to strengthen gang affiliation and identity (Howell, Egley, & Gleason, 2002).

Historical evidence showing the ineffectiveness of suppression techniques can be traced to Thrasher's (1927) early research into gangs, in which he proposed that gangs themselves serve as a suppression technique against actual and perceived threats — physical, racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic — in hostile environments. Cohen and Vila (1996) observed that "if it were not for gang rivalries, hostile police and [suppressing] neighbors, there would be little to hold these groups together save for the thrill-seeking derived from delinquent behavior" (p. 133).

Before describing a comprehensive and integrated "treatment approach" to gangs, we will present an overview of a) the demographics and primary organizational issues of adolescent gangs; and b) the characteristics, behaviors, and family and their community backgrounds of adolescent gang members. Based on our assertion that gangs — as "street organizations" — rarely respond favorably to the current array of prevention, intervention, and suppression "treatments" (Branch, 1997; Curry & Decker, 2003; Howell, 2003a), we will instead focus our treatment approach on the individual, familial, and community characteristics and behaviors that previous researchers have identified.


A yearly survey published by the National Youth Gang Center (the only source of nationally compiled gang data) uses Spergel and Curry's (1995) gang prevention, intervention, and suppression classifications [1]. They have identified five general strategies that American agencies have historically used to address the gang problem: a) community organizing (including mobilization and empowerment); b) social intervention (e.g., outreach, counseling, crisis intervention); c) service provision (e.g., job training, tutoring); d) suppression (enforcement, arrest, and incarceration); and e) organizational change and development (response programs, case management, advocacy).

Howell (2003a) believes that these five strategies can be boiled down to three: prevention, intervention, and suppression. According to his analysis,

Prevention efforts reduce the number of youths who join gangs at the same time that intervention in gang careers with treatment/rehabilitation removes youths from gangs, while suppression strategies (especially graduated sanctions) — within this combination — can weaken gangs and help thwart their recruitment efforts, serving to help diminish the presence and influence of gangs in the community (pp. 88-89).

Howell (2003a) suggests that windows of opportunity for gang prevention, intervention, and suppression exist throughout childhood until the ages of 14/15 — peak ages for gang involvement (Esbensen & Winfree, 1998; Huff, 1998). According to Lahey, Gordon, Loeber, Stouthamer-Loeber and Farrington (1999), the intervention opportunity window overlaps with the prevention window that extends into later ages. Intervention efforts include programs and policies aimed at reducing conduct problems, failure in school, delinquency (juvenile and violent), and gang membership. Early interventions target children and young adolescents showing initial involvement in a number of problem behaviors (Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999; Loeber & Farrington, 1999), while treatment or rehabilitation interventions (combined with graduated sanctions) are used with adolescents who are more advanced in terms of gang involvement and violent delinquency (Krohn, Thornberry, Rivera, & Le Blanc, 2001).

Theoretical Perspectives

Racism-Oppression Theories

Racism and societal oppression have long been considered key reasons for the establishment of gangs (Vigil, 2002). It is generally assumed that when social forces and institutions fail to function effectively, street subcultures — gangs — are formed to fill the void (Vigil, 1988). According to racism-oppression theorists, the list of important causal determinants and reinforcing agents of gang activity in America include a) patterns of ethnic conflict and competition; b) our country's social structure and institutionalized patterns of race relations; c) acts of accommodation to an affluent society by the poor and minorities; and d) individual experiences, patterns of enduring racial conflict, and perceptions of racism and oppression (Knox, 1995; Vigil, 1988).

Vigil (1988) originated the concept of multiple marginalities to describe persons having more than one minority group status — for instance, a disabled African American female who lives in a ghetto — who regularly face complex mixes of prejudicial and discriminatory experiences. Multiple marginality involves clusters of interrelated socioeconomic, cultural, psychological, and ecological factors that may include inadequate living conditions, stressful personal and family changes, and a combination of racism and cultural repression in schools and communities. Along this line, Majors and Billson (1992) have posited that

Joining a gang is a way to organize and make sense of the marginal world of the inner city neighborhood . . . For black males [and members of other ethnic minorities] who have been locked out of the social and economic mainstream, running with a gang can be a form of social achievement (p. 50).

These theories imply that gangs will exist as long as ethnic or racial oppression exists. For whites, gang membership is less a matter of racial or ethnic subjugation than competition with minorities in a context of mutually disagreeable economic conditions. In his broad overview of gang theories, Knox (1995) asserted that racism-oppression theory "is remarkably predictive in determining the onset and persistence of American gangs in correctional, educational, and community setting" (p. 91). According to this theoretical approach, gangs — and other social problems — will remain a symptom of a society that ignores social justice issues and the needs of certain populations in favor of large-scale oppression and discrimination against marginalized citizens (Fromm, 1955; Rappaport & Seidman, 1986; Sloan, 1996; Vigil, 2002; Zizek, 2002).

Developmental Theories

The majority of contemporary researchers appears to favor development theories for understanding the individual, family, and community factors that contribute to the gang problem in America (Curry & Decker, 2003; Howell, 2003a; Loeber & Farrington, 1999; Thornberry et al., 2003). Current developmental theories have emerged from a sociological framework of examining human experience known as the life-course perspective (Baltes, 1987; Elder, 1985), which views human development across an entire lifespan, and focuses on individual progress according to age-graded and culturally defined roles and social transitions. In the U.S., young persons are expected to complete their education, begin their careers, then get married and start families — patterns of social development and social institutions that are described as trajectories and pathways. The word transition is used to describe short-term changes in social roles within long-term trajectories — for example, divorce, dropping out of school, or desistance from gang affiliation.

Elder (1985) has described life courses as being structured by webs of generally consistent, interlocking trajectories that are occasionally interrupted by transition life events that can include everything from marriage to being arrested. "Off-age" (i.e., not considered age appropriate) transitions can produce disorder (Thornberry et al., 2003); individual adaptations to these changes are considered important because they lead to different trajectories (Sampson & Laub, 1993). From a life course perspective, childhood, adolescence, and adult experiences are viewed as parts of a continuous process of change that are dependent on the consequences of earlier behavioral patterns and the influences of risk factors in family, school, and community domains.

In the 1980s, criminologists began using the life course perspective to formulate developmental theories of juvenile delinquency (Farrington, 2000; Thornberry et al., 2003) [2]. Developmental theories are gaining greater acceptance due to the usefulness of viewing offending "careers" over time. They can be used to study causal or risk factors that in turn are used to explain the onset, escalation, de-escalation, and desistance components of individual gang members' careers (Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1986). Developmental theories assume that "delinquent careers are not predetermined but are malleable, changing as the person's life unfolds" (Thornberry et al, 2003, p. 2). Howell (2003a) adds that the developmental process that produces a gang member "is affected by numerous factors in childhood and adolescence" (p. 49). We therefore assume that transitions (including change-points or milestones) provide opportunities for alternative and healthier pathways that families and communities can use to steer at-risk adolescents away from lives of crime and gang membership.

Organizational Theories

Organizational theories are associated with the study of formal and complex organizations and bureaucracies (Thornberry et al., 2003). While many social scientists view gangs as social networks that embed their members in deviant routines and isolate them from prosocial arenas, the application of organizational theory is difficult because "Gangs are more than small groups and less than bureaucracies" (Knox, 1995, p. 233). Yet, if we accept Krohn's (1986) suggestion that all social networks constrain the behaviors of their members to be consistent with the group's dominant behavioral themes, it seems worthwhile to apply organizational theory to adolescent gangs. There are other methodological issues that make researching gangs as organizations particularly tricky — for instance, the use of crime statistics as "organizational data" removes most gang organizational functions from the purview of researchers. In other words, organizational theory suggests that we shift our analysis away from the individual and toward the group, yet access to gangs for purposes of data collection remains extremely limited if not impossible.

Still, there are at least two good arguments in support of applying organizational theories to adolescent gangs: first, they are considered well-formulated groups with both internal and external regulatory mechanisms, and second, there is considerable evidence showing that they are more than just loosely constructed collections of marginalized individuals — for example, many gangs are multigenerational and show signs of community stability, despite qualitative differences in cross-generational membership (Branch, 1997).

But despite the paucity of organizational gang theory research, analyses of gangs in terms of organizational characteristics have been effectively used for classifying their risk dimensions and for understanding the many ways that gangs, as organizations, strive for and develop greater sophistication [3]. At the same time, much of the information that is overlooked in traditional and contemporary gang theories seems very pertinent to assessing the gang problem in America. We agree with Branch's (1997) assertion that "misconceptions about gangs and their [organizational] dynamics have been responsible for the failure to develop effective assessment and intervention strategies" (p. 4).

Gangs as Facilitating Environments
for Delinquent Behavior

The perspective of gangs as facilitating environments for delinquent behavior is based on organizational theory. According to this view, "because gangs clearly connote groups that have a deviant or criminal orientation, a strong relationship between gang membership and high rates of involvement in delinquency and drug use is hardly surprising" (Thornberry et al., 2003, p. 96). Gangs manifest their facilitation component through their normative structures and group processes, resulting in high rates of delinquency, drug use, and other kinds of deviant and criminal behaviors (Deschenes & Esbensen, 1999; Hagedorn, 1998). Researchers who use this theoretical perspective have suggested that group norms and group processes that revolve around such dimensions as status, solidarity, cohesion, and exposure to risky and violent situations are likely to increase delinquent acts among gang members (Klein, Maxson, & Miller, 1995; Miller & Brunson, 2000; Rosenfeld, Bray, & Egley, 1999).

Clinical Theories

Clinical theories — defined by Branch (1997) as theories that are normally applied in clinical and family interventions — have been uniformly overlooked in association with adolescent gangs, perhaps because of the historical failures of the prevention, intervention, and suppression techniques that have been applied to gangs as organizations. Furthermore, this perspective challenges psychological theories regarding the characteristics of individual gang members — i.e., that they are hyperactive, conduct-disordered, cognitively-impaired, impulsive, and sociopathic. There is considerable evidence suggesting that gang members have none of these traits, at least not wholly, since "street organizations" (as some gang members like to call them) have certain cognitive, behavioral, organizational, and leadership guidelines that discourage such behavior. These guidelines suggest that gang members must be able to interact with others in ways that are rewarding to the entire organization; at times, members must set aside their individual needs in order to achieve group goals. Other membership requirements include the capacity to function within a set of limits (either loosely or well-articulated), fidelity, understanding gang membership nuances, and delaying gratification — all evidence supporting the idea that extremely individualistic, sociopathic, impulsive, and narcissistic individuals may not function well as gang members (Branch, 1997). These qualities contradict more traditional gang theory and demand more detailed analysis regarding the application of organizational theory to prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies.

Definitional Issues

There are no universally accepted definitions of youth gang, gang membership, or gang behavior. Thrasher (1927), considered the first gang researcher, noted that "no two gangs are just alike; [they take on] an endless variety of forms" (p. 5). We will suggest that all contemporary gang researchers still agree with Thrasher's observation, yet state and local jurisdictions continue to develop their own "universal" definitions of what constitutes a gang. For our purposes, we will use two definitions that we consistently encountered throughout the literature [4]. The first was established by Thrasher (1927), who characterized gangs in behavioral terms: face to face meetings, "milling," movement through space as a unit, and conflict and planning. Such collective behavior results in the development of tradition, an unreflective internal structure, an esprit de corps, solidarity, moral, group awareness, and territorial attachment.

Thrasher's definition has been disputed, modified, and completely reworked over more than seven decades. We will offer Jankowski's (1991) definition as being sufficiently comprehensive in terms of the major issues that we will address in this chapter:

A gang is an organized social system that is both quasi-private and quasi-secretive and whose size and goals have necessitated that social interaction be governed by a leadership structure that has defined roles; where the authority associated with these roles has been legitimized to the extent that social codes are operational to regulate the behavior of both leadership and the rank and file; that plans and provides not only for the social and economic services of its members, but also for its maintenance as an organization; that pursues such goals irrespective of whether such action is legal or not; and that lacks a bureaucracy (pp. 28-29).

Collectively, these organizational definitions present a broad overview of what constitutes a gang [5], yet defining adolescent gangs remains a slippery task for at least three reasons: a) individual gangs tend to evolve and adapt over time to meet the demands of environments that often become increasingly hostile to their presence (Hagedorn, 1994; Horowitz, 1990; Taylor, 1990); b) there has recently been a proliferation of "hybrid" gangs — that is, gangs whose membership is ethnically and racially diverse, and that include both male and female members (Miller & Brunson, 2000; Starbuck, Howell, & Lindquist, 2001); and c) ways in which youth gangs have been portrayed in the popular media (e.g., the films Colors and Boyz in the Hood), which are based on stereotypes rather than scientific knowledge (Howell, 2003a; Miethe & McCorkle, 1997).

The second definition that consistently shows up in the literature was developed by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP); this definition has gained general acceptance within the criminal justice system. As restated by Howell (1997), a youth gang is a "self-formed association of peers having the following characteristics: a gang name and recognizable symbols, identifiable leadership, a geographic territory, a regular meeting pattern, and collective actions to carry out illegal activities" (p. 1).

Incidence Rates

At the time this chapter was being written, the 2001 National Youth Gang Survey ed by the OJJDP (Egley, 2002) was considered the most current and valid source of information on gang incidence rates (Howell, 2003b; Thornberry, 2003) [6]. All cities with populations of 250,000 or more reported gang activity in 2001, as did 85 percent of cities with between 100,000 and 249,999 residents; 65 percent between 50,000 and 99,999; 44 percent between 25,000 and 49,999; and 20 percent between 2,500 and 24,999. Thirty-five percent of all suburban counties and 11 percent of all rural counties reported gang activity in 2001, and 95 percent of all jurisdictions reporting gang activity in 2001 also reported gang activity in previous surveys (conducted yearly since 1996). Approximately 3,000 jurisdictions across the country were believed to have experienced some form of gang activity in 2001 (Egley & Major, 2003). Various surveys of urban adolescents indicate that between 14 and 30 percent join a gang for some period of time (Howell, 2003a). The data reveal an age range for gang members of between 12 and 24; membership is believed to be expanding at the very top and bottom of this range, but more so at the top, meaning that most youth gang members are actually young adults. (Howell, 1997; Thornberry et al., 2003). According to the National Youth Gang Survey, 94 percent of all gang members in the U.S. in 2001 were male, and 39 percent of all youth gangs had female members (Egley, 2002). Age, race, and ethnicity statistics are available from the 1996, 1998, and 1999 surveys. Respondents to the 1996 survey reported that 50 percent of all gang members were juveniles (17 years of age or younger). According to the 1999 and 2000 surveys, 47 percent of all gang members were Hispanic, 31 percent African American, 13 percent white, 7 percent Asian, and 2 percent "other" (Egley, 2002). Egley (2002) and Egley and Major (2003) have both reported that the racial/ethnic/gender distribution of gang members has varied little since these surveys began.

Available data for cities with populations of 25,000 or more residents show that 42 percent reported increases in gang membership and 45 percent reported increases in the number of active gangs from the two preceding survey years. In comparison, cities with populations of 100,000 or more that have gang-related problems consistently reported increasing numbers of gang members throughout all the years that the survey has been conducted (Egley & Major, 2003).

A significant number of cities that reported gang activity also reported gang-related homicides in 2001, including 69 percent of those cities with populations of 100,000 or more and 37 percent with populations between 50,000 and 99,999. More than half of all homicides in Los Angeles (59%) and Chicago (53%) were described as gang-related in 2001. The total number of gang-related homicides (698) in these two cities alone was greater than the total number of gang-related homicides (637) reported by 130 other cities with populations of 100,000 or more (Egley & Major, 2003).

Sixty-three percent of jurisdictions with gang-related problems also reported that gang members had returned to their jurisdictions in 2001 following periods of incarceration. More than two-thirds of these jurisdictions stated that the return of incarcerated gang members affected their existing gang problems — specifically, increases were noted in violent crime (63%) and drug trafficking (68%) by local gangs. Just over one-third (34%) of these jurisdictions reported that they did not have any community programs to assist gang members who were returning from prison, and another 35 percent did not mention whether or not they had such programs (Egley & Arjunan, 2002).

Risk and Resiliency Factors

The available evidence shows that resiliency factors are clearly outweighed by gang-related risk factors, not only in terms of the actual factors influencing risk and resilience, but also regarding the research efforts in both areas. In Howell's (2003a) words, "Research on protective factors has been slower to develop than risk factor studies, in part because of the absence of a standard for determining what constitutes [resilience]" (p. 90). Furthermore, individual, family, and community factors are highly intertwined and difficult to disentangle in the context of risk and resiliency research (Benard, 1991).

Several characteristics have been shown to predict gang membership and behavior. Tremblay and LeMarquand (2001) found that boys with chronic histories of physical aggression commonly exhibit cognitive-behavioral problems (i.e., inappropriate automatic reactions to situations). Such problems often lead to school failure, which is a strong predictor of gang membership (Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999). Individual characteristics that are thought to have links with cognitive-behavioral problems include learning disabilities, hyperactivity, conduct problems, and lack of self-control (e.g., impulsivity, risk-seeking tendencies, and physical problem-solving tendencies); many of these same characteristics have been identified as key risk factors for gang membership (Esbensen, Huizinga & Weiher, 1993; Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999; Howell, 2003b). The list of characteristics that predict gang membership also includes illegal gun ownership (Bjerregaard & Lizotte, 1995; Lizotte, Krohn, Howell, Tobin & Howard, 2000; Lizotte, Tesoriero, Thornberry, & Krohn, 1994) and early involvement in delinquency, alcohol/drug use, early dating and precocious sexual activity, and mental health problems (Thornberry et al., 2003). Thornberry et al. (2003) also found that youngsters (particularly boys) who experience numerous negative/stressful life events — failing a course at school, being suspended from school, breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend, having a major fight or problem with a friend, etc. — are also more likely to join gangs.

In short, children and adolescents with conduct disorders or who show worsening antisocial behavior as early as the first grade are at high risk of joining gangs (Esbensen, Huizinga, & Weiher, 1993). These children are often identified as learning disabled and show evidence of developing deviant lifestyles at an early age (Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999). The most dedicated gang members exhibit low self-control and tendencies toward risk-seeking behavior (Knox, 1995). Regardless of gender, future gang members are more likely to have conduct problems at a very young age, to develop delinquent beliefs, to cultivate delinquent friends, to begin dating early, and to become involved in drug use in late childhood and early adolescence (Thornberry et al., 2003). However, Howell (2003a) has also found evidence that a significant number of the youngest gang members "are good kids, from good families . . . are good students . . . [and] do not remain in gangs for long" (p. 90).

Some minor discrepancies in gang-related risk factors have been noted in terms of gender and race/ethnicity. However, at least one researcher has analyzed available data and concluded that risk factors for gang membership are very similar between adolescent girls and boys (Deschenes & Esbensen, 1999; Thornberry et al., 2003). In addition, Howell (2003b) has recently reported that for both genders, a strong association exists between having deficits in multiple developmental domains and the likelihood of joining a gang.

Evidence that risk and resiliency factors operate differently for members of different ethnic and racial groups has been presented by Spergel and Curry (1995) and Walker-Barnes and Mason (2001), among others. In terms of "multiple marginalities," ethnic minority and impoverished adolescents appear to be particularly at-risk for gang membership. Although it remains clear that socioeconomic status and the effects of discrimination are the most powerful factors affecting risk and resilience (Vigil, 2002), there is much less clarity regarding the association between socioeconomic status and discrimination on the one hand and race/ethnicity/gender on the other. Thus, it has been suggested that criminal statistics regarding race and ethnicity should not be used to confirm differences in rates of gang participation but to confirm differences in arrest rates for gang-related offenses. There is considerable evidence showing that adolescents of color, irrespective of gang membership, are more likely to be detained and arrested than their Caucasian counterparts (Howell, 2003b; Vigil, 2002). It has also been noted that in early developmental phases, ethnic identity is a factor in individual associations with collectives (including youth gangs) for the purpose of resolving one's sense of personal identity. Individuals who feel socially marginalized often try a variety of approaches to resolving such crises — for example, affiliating themselves with others they perceive as being most like themselves. On the other hand, such affiliations may be related to a specific developmental phase, and may later lead to full participation in healthy expressions of ethnic identity — a powerful factor in resisting the appeal of gangs (Branch, 1997).

Some resiliency factors may simply be the opposite of risk factors — for instance, low parental support is considered a risk factor while high parental supervision is recognized as a resiliency/protective factor. Some evidence has been offered showing that resilience factors can interact with risk factors to reduce the likelihood of a child or adolescent joining a gang (Henderson, Benard, & Sharp-Light, 1999). Researchers continue to work toward establishing which resiliency factors are most likely to buffer risk factors (Bjerregaard & Smith, 1993; Howell, 2003b; Maxson, Whitlock, & Klein, 1998; Thornberry et al., 2003; Wyrick, 2000).

In the individual domain, support for personal skills, social skills, and self-efficacy is strongly correlated with resilience in young people who are at risk for gang involvement (Durlak, 1998; Howell, 2003a). Also, some of the membership characteristics we have described as being requirements for gang functioning — impulse control, fidelity, and delayed gratification — are also considered resiliency factors (Branch, 1997). Seeing that risk and resiliency factors are intertwined among individual, family, and social domains, developmental theories may be helpful in assessing the trajectories of individual life paths, especially for identifying key transition points for intervention. Assessing the impact of such transitions as entering high school or dating can be used to predict risk and emphasize resiliency by increasing support from such institutions as the family, school, or community agencies.

Family Factors Influencing Risk and Resiliency

Key family risk factors for gang membership include structure (e.g., broken homes) and poverty (Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999; Howell, 2003b). Poor family management — including low parental supervision, lack of control or child monitoring (Le Blanc & Lanctot, 1998), and abuse/neglect (Thornberry et al., 2003) are also strong predictors. Interestingly, a high level of psychological control in the form of manipulative and guilt-based actions on the part of parents is also considered a risk factor for gang membership (Walker-Barnes & Mason, 2001). While it may seem obvious that the involvement of other family members (especially siblings and cousins) in gang activity would be a strong predictor, there is very little in the way of research evidence supporting this assumption (Egley, 2002). What research has been conducted to date shows that this factor is particularly strong in Latino communities in East Los Angeles and the American Southwest, and to a lesser extent in African American communities in South Central Los Angeles (Vigil, 1983, 1988). There is also strong evidence that immigrants from countries that have recently suffered from the effects of war (examples include Vietnam and Nicaragua) are particularly vulnerable to gang affiliation (Vigil, 2002).

The primary resiliency factor associated with family context is good parent-child relationships, including the positive involvement of parents, consistent interaction between parents and children, and family bonding (Catalano & Hawkins, 1996; Durlak, 1998; Farrington, 1993). Benard (1991) has identified the most important family resilience factors as caring relationships, parents sending high expectation messages to their children, and parents giving their children meaningful opportunities to contribute to a family's well-being. Additional factors that have been identified as enhancing resiliency in a family context include income, cohesion, shared interests and activities, communication, flexibility, safe and adequate housing, and conflict resolution skills (Henderson et al., 1999).

Social and Community Factors
Influencing Risk and Resiliency

Most contemporary gang theorists list the three most important contexts affected by social and community risk and resiliency factors as school, peers, and community (Curry & Decker, 2003; Howell, 2003a; Thornberry et al., 2003; Vigil, 2002). All three are contexts in which gang members show high levels of alienation (Esbensen, Osgood, Taylor, Peterson, & Freng, 2001; Howell, 2003b).

At least two sets of researchers believe that the strongest school-related risk factor for gang membership is low achievement in elementary school (Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999; Le Blanc & Lanctot, 1998), which indicates low academic aspirations (Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999; Howell, 2003b) and a low degree of commitment to education (Le Blanc & Lanctot, 1998; Thornberry et al., 2003). Two other factors that have been identified as contributing to gang affiliation are the negative labeling of youngsters by teachers (Esbensen, 2000) and feeling unsafe at school (Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 2001). Furthermore, Howell and Lynch (2000) found that increased security measures at schools do not necessarily reduce gang presence.

Regarding peer risk factors, Thornberry et al. (2003) describe associations with peers who engage in delinquent acts as one of the strongest risk factors for gang membership, particularly for boys. Another strong risk factor is associations with aggressive peers — whether or not they are involved in delinquency (Lahey, Gordon, Loeber, Stouthamer-Loeber, & Farrington, 1999; Lyon, Henggeler, & Hall, 1992). The lack of adult supervision of child or adolescent interactions with friends is integrally related to the influence of delinquent friends on a youngster's decision to join a gang (Le Blanc & Lanctot, 1998).

Longitudinal studies have shown that the strongest community or neighborhood risk factors for gang membership are the availability of drugs, the presence of troubled neighborhood youth, a youngster's sense of feeling unsafe in a neighborhood, low neighborhood attachment, low level of neighborhood integration, local poverty, and neighborhood disorganization (Howell, 2003a). Researchers have long acknowledged that gangs tend to cluster in high-crime and socially disorganized neighborhoods (Fagan, 1996; Short & Strodtbeck, 1965; Vigil, 1988). Virgil (2002) has suggested that during adolescence, many individual and family protective factors are strongly influenced by the level of disorganization in a neighborhood (Vigil, 2002); this includes the clustering of existing gangs in such communities.

Peer modeling, high-quality schools and teachers, clear and consistent social norms, and effective social policies in the community domain are all considered strong resiliency factors for potential gang members (Durlak, 1998; Howell, 2003a). Resiliency factors that can be supported by a community (especially when implemented within families and schools) are a) strong social support, b) setting clear and consistent boundaries, c) filling free time with creative activities that emphasize prosocial values, d) emphasizing commitment to a child's well-being and development, e) stressing social competencies, and f) supporting a child's sense of positive identity (including cultural identity) (Henderson et al., 1999). Furthermore, setting high but realistic expectations and opportunities for meaningful participation in schools and communities is strongly associated with resiliency (Benard, 1991).

In the same manner that increased family support during significant adolescent transitions can increase resiliency, there are many opportunities for social and community institutions to intervene and increase support at predictable points during an individual's life path. Such institutions as schools, churches, community organizations, and even the criminal justice system have the potential to provide support to adolescents as they make decisions that may or may not send them off on trajectories leading to gang affiliation.

However, despite the long list of social and community factors that influence risk and resiliency, the literature consistently states that adolescents who live in poor neighborhoods are demographically — if not psychologically — at greater risk of gang affiliation (Howell, 2003a; Thornberry et al., 2003). According to the evidence we have reviewed, it seems as though race and ethnicity are weaker determinants of risk margins or access to resiliency factors than such group association factors as residing in poor neighborhoods, acting according to stereotypical behavioral scripts, and being targeted by law enforcement agencies.

Evidence-Based Treatment Interventions for Adolescent Gang Members in Community Settings

There is considerable disagreement about the potential to achieve social improvements through community organizations (Howell, 2003a), especially in light of Short's (1990) reminder that "communities, too, have careers in delinquency" (p. 224). In a subsequent analysis of critical features of the youth gang problem, Short (1996) identified individual characteristics and group processes that must be taken into account when developing prevention and intervention programs. Short claimed that community factors contributing to gang delinquency and violence consist of macro- and micro-level influences, with the macro-level forces including the spread of gang culture, youth culture, and a growing underclass. Quantifying these forces is a difficult task, but it is important that they serve as a backdrop in the development of community-based "treatment" efforts (Howell, 1999, 2003a). There is some evidence indicating that intensive community-based sanctions are more effective than restrictive and expensive confinement policies in reducing adolescent gang incidents and recidivism (Howell, 2003b). This is an important concept, considering that long-term confinement is the equivalent of "residential treatment" for many gang members.

What Works

In their National Assessment of Youth Gangs Survey, Spergel and Curry (1995) suggested that community organization mobilization is the most effective strategy for dealing with adolescent gangs, but only when social opportunities are also provided. They recommended that communities create locally based youth agencies to provide a continuum of services to gang and non-gang youth (Howell, 2003b; Thornberry et al., 2003). This idea became the cornerstone for Howell's (2003a) Comprehensive Strategy Framework (CSF), which combines prevention, intervention, and suppression techniques with a strong emphasis on specific community contexts. The strategy encompasses all of the major treatment areas covered in this chapter, and is currently the primary method used by the juvenile criminal justice system. It has been thoroughly evaluated by numerous researchers, and will be discussed in detail in a later section.

It is widely recognized that to be effective, community-based treatment must target the weaknesses and strengths of specific community structures beyond the gang problem — employment, schools, social services, health programs, and the like (Howell, 1999; Klein, Maxson, & Miller, 1995). Of the handful of effective programs for reducing gang involvement that have been identified in resiliency studies, one that stands out is the Health Realization/Community Empowerment program (Mills, 1993; Mills & Spittle, 2001) — a program that combines prevention, intervention, and building relationships between communities and agency resources, including law enforcement. This program has been shown to be effective in reducing crime, delinquency, and gang involvement in some of the United States' most disturbed neighborhoods, including South Central Los Angeles, Oakland, and the Bronx (Benard, 1999; Borg, 2002; Henderson et al., 1999).

What Might Work

Gang interventions in community settings that serve to prevent, redirect, or reduce gang members and membership generally enlist the efforts of local citizens, youth agencies, community organizations, and the criminal justice system. The emphasis has been on indigenous leadership to combat delinquency and to provide the community with a sense of involvement (Knox, 1995). There has been little evidence, however, to support the effectiveness of these programs (Howell, 1998, Thornberry et al., 2003). One such large-scale program — Mobilization for Youth started in New York City in the 1960s — was seen to provide short term success but failed to achieve lasting reform (Klein, 1995). In brief, community interventions, which are historically difficult to evaluate, have not shown significant evidence in reducing the number of gangs or the level delinquency — especially those that take on the gang problem directly (i.e., through criminal justice interventions).

However, there is evidence that community based interventions that take a less direct approach might be effective in reducing adolescent gang membership (Howell, 1995; Goldstein & Huff, 1993). Such programs often focus on providing social opportunities and include a broad spectrum of educational and job-related opportunities. The most promising educational programs are those that use the school as the base for a multifaceted approach that addresses school performance, anti-gang education, and the building of self-esteem (Klein, Maxson, & Miller, 1995; Moore, 1991). Community interventions that are school-based programs have shown to be effective in changing attitudes and increasing knowledge about gang issues, but their effect on behavioral change is unclear (Thornberry et al., 2003). Moreover, most of these programs are directed at marginal or peripheral youth rather than committed gang members (Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992).

The successful strategies we identified combine prevention, intervention, and suppression efforts. When we consider programs that might work, we will speculate on whether or not strategies applied to larger inner-city populations could be applied in suburban and rural settings, where incidence rates have been increasing over the past decade (Egley, 2002). Testing these strategies in these settings will become increasingly important if this pattern continues, but very few efforts have been made to date.

What Doesn't Work

The prevailing opinion among researchers is that the "get tough on crime" approach (e.g., three strikes law, zero tolerance, etc.) has failed to reduce the gang (or any other crime) problem (Howell, 2003a; Klein, Maxson, & Miller, 1995). It is our opinion that suppression techniques without prevention and intervention do not work and very often backfire since they tend to increase the intensity of perceived threats to gangs, and cause them to become even more intractable. For this reason, we believe that suppression techniques — including the psychiatric hospitalization of gang-affiliated youth — have been generally counterproductive.

Evidence-Based Treatment Interventions for Adolescent Gang Members in Residential Settings

Considerable contradictions mark the treatment of adolescent gang members in residential settings. The most common residential "treatment" has long been incarceration; however, up to 80% of incarcerated adolescents have disorders that meet criteria for DSM-IV mental disorders (Cocozza & Skowyra, 2000) and up to 50% of adolescents in psychiatric hospitals are admitted because of behavioral problems rather than mental disorders (Howell, 2003a; Weithorn, 1988).

What Works

In light of the failure of incarceration and other suppression techniques, residential treatment for adolescent gang members must incorporate prevention and intervention — the second and third components of Howell's (2003a) Comprehensive Strategy Framework (CSF). It seems most important to provide some form of aftercare whenever an adolescent has been placed in and released from residential treatment in order to prevent relapses into gang behaviors and to reduce recidivism (Greenwood et al., 1996). An important aspect of the CSF is its "graduated sanctions" approach to suppression and incarceration. Krisberg and Howell (1999) have suggested that "the appropriate mix of residential and home-based services for different types of offenders" (p. 364) might provide a useful initial framework for determining what works for different types of offending and gang-prone youth. When connected to prevention and intervention programs, graduated sanctions have proven effective for reducing adolescent gang behavior and gang affiliation (Egley & Major, 2003; Esbensen, 2000; Howell, 2003a). Currently, this is a strategy being employed by the juvenile criminal justice system to target adolescent gang behaviors.

To be effective, however, the components of any graduated sanctions system must match the developmental history of an adolescent's delinquent career as well as the risk of recidivism. When offenders persist in committing serious and violent acts of delinquency, their positions in the graduated sanctions system should be advanced, and rehabilitation systems must become more intensive and structured. In the CSF, the five levels of sanctions are a) immediate intervention (e.g., counseling, probation) with first-time misdemeanors and nonviolent felony offenders and non-serious repeat offenders; b) intermediate sanctions for first-time serious or violent offenders, including more intensive supervision and probation; c) community confinement; d) secure corrections for serious, violent, and chronic offenders; and e) aftercare (Howell, 2003a). These gradations form a continuum of intervention options that require a matching continuum of treatment options that include referral and disposition resources. Intensive aftercare programs are critical to the success of such systems at all sanction levels (Howell, 2003a).

What Might Work

As we have emphasized throughout this chapter, residential treatment interventions that address adolescent gang behavior must be part of a broader strategy that includes prevention and suppression. Although the OJJDP continues to apply such strategies in large cities, the applicability of these strategies to suburban and rural adolescents is still being debated (Egley, 2002; Curry & Decker, 2003). Recent studies of migration patterns have shed new light on strategies that might work in those geographic locations (Thornberry et al., 2003). While the CSF and other combined strategy approaches appear applicable to these new patterns, empirical studies need to be conducted to support their validity. Other residential treatment programs for adolescent gang members that have shown various degrees of beneficial results include wilderness challenge programs (Lipsey, Wilson, & Cothern, 2000), restitution programs (Roy, 1995), and specialized facilities for specific behavioral problems (Reich, Culross, & Behrman, 2002). These approaches require more thorough evaluation.

What Doesn't Work

Many prevention programs inadvertently create deviant peer groups (as often occurs in prisons) when they establish and run such activities as anger management classes (Lipsey, Wilson, & Cothern, 2000). Being placed in one of these groups is often perceived as a form of punishment (Howell, 2003b), and such experiences can have iatrogenic effects — that is, the problem being addressed can be inadvertently made worse by the treatment procedure. Still, despite the large number of studies showing that punishment is ineffective for juvenile offenders (especially gang members), incarceration remains the most prevalent form of "residential treatment" for this population (Howell, 2003a; Klein, Maxson, & Miller, 1995; Thornberry et al., 2003). Ever since the mid-19th century, advocates of incarceration alternatives have argued that prisons breed crime (Foucault, 1977; Krisberg & Austin, 1993; Krisberg & Howell, 1999), yet defenders of juvenile corrections continue to claim that confinement exerts a deterrent effect (DiIulio, 1995; Murray & Cox, 1979; Rhine, 1996).

Researchers have reported that the most ineffective forms of residential treatment are boot camps (MacKenzie, 2000), large custodial facilities (Krisberg & Howell, 1999), and long prison terms — especially for adolescents sent to adult facilities (Howell, 1997, 2000, 2003a). Psychiatric hospitalization for adolescent gang members has been described as the worst form of residential treatment (Howell, 2003a; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 2001) and one that does more harm than good (Burns, Hoagwood, & Mrazek, 1999; Weithorn, 1988).

Psychopharmacology and Gangs

The effects of medication on childhood and adolescent behavioral problems — especially violence and delinquency — are still very much in need of research and evaluation (Howell, 2003a; Wasserman, Miller, & Cothern, 2000). The few studies that have been conducted on the long-term benefits of medication treatment for either chronic or acute violence and delinquency in adolescents have not specifically addressed gang-related issues (Burns et al., 1999; Howell, 2003a). When applied to aggression and delinquency, psychopharmacology typically focuses on physical acts of aggression (Rippon, 2000). Lynn and King (2002) have noted that "aggression and violence are often not precisely defined, and their [psychopharmacological] study is complicated as a result" (p. 305) [7].

A primary issue in addressing adolescent delinquency and aggression is that both are viewed as symptoms in the constellation of psychiatric disorders that includes attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder. Aggression and delinquency can also occur in post-traumatic stress disorder, psychotic disorders, mood disorders, seizure disorders, pervasive developmental disorders, mental retardation, and traumatic brain injuries (Fava, 1997). Furthermore, in terms of psychopharmacological studies, aggression and associated delinquencies are poorly understood in terms of their neurobiological underpinnings (Lynn & King, 2002). There is some consistency in research results concerning interactions among multiple neurotransmitter, neuroendocrine, and hormonal systems and their mechanisms for regulating aggression, impulsivity, and other behaviors that are commonly associated with gang activities (De Felipe, Herrero, & O'Brien, 1998) [8].

Preventing Adolescent Gangs and Gang Behavior

No one has yet discovered an effective strategy for preventing the formation of youth gangs (Howell, 2000; 2003a). As we have argued in preceding sections, we believe that in order to be effective, prevention must be considered as one part of a comprehensive strategy that also addresses intervention and suppression concerns. Here we will describe several programs organized outside the juvenile criminal justice system that are considered exemplars of the prevention component of the CSF.

What Works

We believe that the only prevention techniques that work are those that combine prevention efforts with intervention and suppression strategies. Hawkins et al. (2000) have propose the following set of principles to guide the programming of prevention efforts: a) address known risk factors for delinquency, violence, and substance abuse; b) make clear connections between program activities and risk reduction goals; c) attempt to strengthen protective factors while reducing risk; d) address risk reduction activities before they become predictive of later problems; e) provide intervention strategies that target individuals and communities that are exposed to multiple risk factors; f) take a multifaceted approach to addressing key risk factors affecting a community; g) include members of all racial, cultural, and socioeconomic groups that will be affected.

While a number of prevention strategies have been developed to augment the CSF, three programs stand out as examples of a prevention component that could be viewed as reducing the necessity of implementing intervention and suppression components. All three programs were analyzed in detail during the development of the CSF (Egley, 2002; Howell, 2003a).

  • The Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program. G.R.E.A.T. is a school-based gang prevention program that is currently delivered to 365,000 public middle school students in the United States (Howell, 2003a). The program places particular emphasis on cognitive-behavioral skills training, social skills development, refusal skills training, and conflict resolution. It has been found to have positive long-term effects on reducing gang membership and delinquency (Esbensen & Osgood, 1999; Esbensen et al., 2001; Howell, 2003a).
  • The Montreal Preventive Treatment Program, designed to address antisocial behavior in 7-, 8-, and 9-year-old boys from low-income families who display disruptive behavior problems in kindergarten. This program has successfully demonstrated that a combination of parent training and childhood skills development can steer children away from gangs. The training uses coaching, peer modeling, self-instruction, reinforcement contingencies, and role playing to build skills. Evaluations have identified short- and long-term gains, including lower delinquency rates, less substance abuse, and less gang involvement at the age of 15 (Howell, 2000; Moore, 1998; Tremblay, Masse, Pagani, & Vitaro, 1996).
  • The Gang Prevention Through Targeted Outreach program, developed by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. At-risk youth are identified and recruited into the program through direct outreach efforts and school referrals. Training is offered in character and leadership development, health and life skills, the arts, sports, fitness, and recreation. An evaluation of this program showed decreases in gang and delinquent behaviors, more positive adult and peer relationships, and positive changes in the participants' achievements in school (Arbreton & McClanahan, 2002; Esbensen, 2000; Howell, 2003a).

Two clinical approaches have been found to be effective in preventing child and adolescent antisocial behavior, delinquency, and associations with delinquent peers. The first is known as Multisystemic therapy (MST) (Henggeler, Schoenwald, Bourduin, Rowland & Cunningham, 1998). Based on a family preservation model, MST focuses on improving parental control and involvement with their children, and emphasizes the formation of a care continuum between families and community cares systems [9]. The second is Functional Family Therapy (FFT) (Alexander, Barton, Schiavo, & Parsons, 1976; Alexander & Parsons, 1973), which uses behavioral techniques such as clear specification of rules and consequences, contingency contracting, use of social reinforcement, and token economy, as well as more cognitively based interventions (e.g., examining attributions and expectations) to increase communication and mutual problem-solving within the family as a whole. In well-controlled studies, both MST and FFT have shown to be effective in improving family communication and in lowering recidivism of youth with histories of minor delinquency as well as those with more serious behavior problems (Mihalic, Irwin, Elliott, Fagan, & Hansen, 2001; Wasserman, Miller, & Cothern, 2000).

What Might Work

In terms of prevention, what might work raises issues similar to those reviewed in previous sections, especially in regard to strategies that account for certain gang-related migration patterns. Potentially successful approaches include the use of peer leaders to serve as anti-gang and anti-delinquency role models, especially in partnership with teachers who are charged with applying the curriculum (Howell, 2003a) [10]. Other prevention approaches believed to be effective but not yet evaluated include Midnight Basketball, community service, and community enrichment programs (Gottfredson and Gottfredson, 2001; USDHHS, 2001).

A strategy that has shown mixed results is community policing. Because there are so many different versions of this approach (Peak & Glensor, 1999), it is not possible to present a coherent overview in this chapter. However, it appears that the most successful community police interventions have been those that support community resiliency efforts, did the most to build relationships between individual police officers and community residents, and used suppression only as a last-ditch option (Howell, 2003a).

What Doesn't Work

Scare tactics, perhaps the most common approach to preventing adolescent gang behavior, simply do not work (Howell, 2003a). Viewed as pre-suppression tactics, their failure lends further support to our assertion that prevention and intervention must be incorporated into any successful anti-gang strategy. The failure of some generously funded and widely implemented programs support this assertion, the most famous being the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. Its success is widely acclaimed despite an ever-increasing number of reports attesting to its ineffectiveness as a substance abuse prevention program [11].

Zero-tolerance policies are social control policies grounded in a philosophy of deterrence. They encourage punishment for any infraction of codes of conduct on the part of children and adolescents. In terms of gang-related behaviors, such policies have been implemented to address drug use, vandalism, threatening speech, and gun crimes in communities throughout the United States, but especially in low-income neighborhoods (Curry & Decker, 2003; Stimmel, 1996). The ineffectiveness of zero-tolerance policies may be due to a combination of their close relationship with suppression strategies and their demand for immediate and severe punishment for every single infraction of codes, rules, and laws, which taxes overburdened community resources.

Conclusion: Best Practice Recommendations

Recent surveys have underscored the general lack of successful gang prevention, intervention, or suppression programs in the United States (Howell, 2003a; Thornberry et al., 2003). Klein, Maxson, and Miller (1995) concluded that "much of our local response and most of our state and federal responses to gang problems are way off base — conceptually misguided, poorly implemented, half-heartedly pursued" (p. 19). We believe his assertion remains true today.

An extraordinary amount of time, effort, and money has been expended since Thrasher's (1927) initial explorations of the gang problem in America, and most researchers who have reviewed the enormous amount of available information have concluded that the problem can only be successfully controlled through a combination of prevention, intervention, and suppression (Egley, 2002; Howell, 2003a; Thornberry et al, 2003). Based on that conclusion, Howell (2003a) has developed what he refers to as a Comprehensive Strategy Framework (CSF) — an integrated approach to the adolescent gang issue that has been described as the "best practice" for dealing with the adolescent gang problem by the U. S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) (Egley, 2002).

The CSF is a two-tiered system for responding proactively to juvenile delinquency, crime, and gang behavior. In the first tier, prevention and early intervention programs are used to prevent and mitigate initial acts of delinquency. If these efforts fail, then the juvenile justice system (the second tier) must respond to delinquency by addressing the recidivism risk factors and treatment needs of adolescent gang members.

The CSF is based on the following principles:

  • Families must be strengthened in terms of their primary responsibilities to instill moral values and to provide guidance and support to children. Where no functional family unit exists, it is imperative to establish family surrogates and to provide them with adequate resources for guiding and nurturing their charges.

  • "Core" social institutions such as schools, churches, and community organizations require additional support for their efforts in developing capable, mature, and responsible youth. The collective goal of these institutions should be to ensure that children have opportunities and support for becoming productive, law-abiding adults.

  • When delinquent/gang behaviors occur, timely intervention is required to prevent first-time or very young offenders from becoming chronic offenders or committing more serious and violent crimes. Under an authoritative umbrella that includes police, intake, and probation agencies, initial intervention efforts should be established around family and other core societal institutions. In addition to ensuring appropriate responses, juvenile justice system authorities should act quickly and firmly when formal adjudication procedures and sanctions are required.

  • Serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offenders who have committed felony offenses or who have failed to respond to intervention and nonsecure community-based treatment and rehabilitation services must be identified. Offenders who are considered threats to community safety may require placement in more secure community-based facilities (Howell, 2003a).

Unlike many other gang prevention and control programs, the CSF is research-based, data-driven, and outcome-focused. It is a framework that is based on decades of research findings and a synthesis of program evaluations, its focus is on empowering communities to assess their own gang problems and needs, then provide guidance for using the data to design and implement their own comprehensive strategies. The CSF was established on the premise that local ownership of programs and strategies breeds success (Tolan, Perry, & Jones, 1987).

The CSF is considered "comprehensive" in the following respects:

  • It encompasses the entire juvenile justice enterprise — prevention, intervention, and suppression — in the form of graduated sanctions.

  • While it specifically targets serious, violent, and chronic offenders, it provides a framework for dealing with all juvenile offenders as well as at-risk children and adolescents.

  • It calls for an integrated, multi-agency response to childhood and adolescent problems that promotes a unified effort on the part of the juvenile justice, mental health, child welfare, education, and law enforcement systems and community organizations.

  • It links all juvenile justice system resources in an interactive manner, reflecting the belief that comprehensive juvenile justice is not a zero-sum game.

  • It guides jurisdictions in developing response continuums that parallel offender and gang member careers, beginning with early intervention and followed by a combination of prevention and graduated sanctions. Such a continuum allows a community to organize an array of programs that corresponds to how gang member careers develop over time.

A continuum of programs aimed at specific points in a gang member's career or an at-risk adolescent's life course has a much better chance of succeeding than any single intervention. Programs are needed that address family risk factors during the pre-school years, school-focused interventions are required from preschool through elementary school, and programs that buffer the exposure of adolescents to delinquent and gang peer influences are required during the junior and senior high school years. Prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies that counter individual, family, and community risk factors for joining gangs are clearly needed at all points of a young person's life course.


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