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February 15, 2007

What should we do about urban gangs?

Listening to Radio 4 this morning, it’s clear that if anyone’s going to solve the problem of gang violence, street robberies and guns in the hands of teenagers, it’s not going to be the government.

They and much of the mainstream media seem to be fairly out-of-touch when it comes to debating the solutions to this increasing problem. Three murders in two weeks suggests areas of London are turning into New York in the early 1990s.

The causes seem obvious, even to the British elite.

A lack of father-figures. Poor education. Relative poverty. Lack of opportunities for teenagers. Young and vulnerable single mothers. Under-investment by government. The list goes on…

But there seem to be few long-term ideas as to how to reverse these trends. The government has invested in urban education, and a number of City Academies seem to be working. And there’s been some progress in helping single mothers look after their children financially.

But it’s not been enough. Since 1997, poor urban families have undoubtedly become worse off. And simply creating more community centres, libraries and after-school clubs seems unlikely to stop some of the current generation from entering a life of crime and bloody violence. These schemes might work in the future, but it’s too late for many.

Their best hope almost seems to be a stretch in prison. And yet, rehabilitation is a farce. Prisons are so over-crowded and under-funded that many Judges admit that jail has lost its potential for rehabilitating, and is now simply a punishment. Criminals will probably come out in worse shape than when they went in.

But the Treasury still plans to force the Home Office to cut its budget until 2010. This is madness, not only because of the violence on urban streets, but because of the fight against terrorism, which surely needs adequate funding.

Of course, the ideal situation would be for these kids to stay out of prison altogether, and sort them out before they get into trouble. But government has shown absolutely no sign of leadership on this issue.

These kids’ only chance is with the community workers and project leaders working on the ground. But with little funding, and gang culture so ingrained in some areas, there’s little that even they can do.

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