Editorial: Keeping youth from prison, and gangs
They are people you might have passed on the street or stood next to in line. They are the young men profiled in Jeremy Blackman’s and Annmarie Timmins’s recent Monitor series on the founding and future of the Brotherhood of White Warriors, a gang formed in 2005 by four young inmates in state prison.
The gang members profiled come from all over the state. They banded together in prison to protect themselves against abuse by other, already established gangs and their numbers expanded, to a few dozen according to one former member, and as many as a few hundred, according to law enforcement. All have lengthy criminal records. Most have a history of violence, and nearly all will be eventually be back on the streets.
Several questions stand out from the many raised by the three-part series. What put the youths on the path to prison and made gang membership attractive? How could others be turned away from that path? And what more should the corrections system do to increase the percentage of inmates who mend their ways and don’t return?
Jerod Trebian, a reputed founder of the gang, answered, at least in part, the first question in interviews with the Monitor. Banding together for self-protection is as old as life itself, but young men, Trebian said, join gangs because they grow up with no father in their lives, want the sense of family gang membership provides and crave the rite of passage that says they’ve become men.
Mending fractured families and alleviating the poverty that too often produces angry, hopeless youth is not within the powers of any agency or social service organization. Anything that builds skills, teaches values, instills pride and provides a sense of group identity in youth lessens the chance that they’ll go wrong: sports, Boys and Girls Clubs, scouting, theater, music, church. But far more needs to be done to reach the children who don’t or won’t connect with such supports. One such program is YouthBuild, an education and job program that puts older teens and young adults to work building affordable housing while they acquire a GED. New Hampshire has one YouthBuild program, in Manchester, but needs more youth development options.
All of the gang members profiled served time, most repeatedly in a revolving door that often led to new, more serious crimes. They were not rehabilitated during their time behind bars. It now costs upward of $35,000 per year to keep an inmate in prison. While changes made in recent years under Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn have reduced the recidivism rate from 51 percent to 43 percent, that rate is double those that achieved by states that spend up front to rehabilitate inmates before they’re released and help them adjust to life in society.
Providing inmates with high-quality substance abuse treatment programs, counseling and education costs money. Historically, the New Hampshire Legislature has been unwilling to spend it. It starves the system, perhaps from fear of being seen as coddling criminals. But that’s pound-foolish. Not only is rehabilitating inmates cheaper than having them return, it reduces crime and strengthens society.
Tragically, the number of children living in poverty in New Hampshire has increased rapidly since 2011, when the state had the lowest child poverty rate in the nation. We hope that sad truth, and Blackman’s and Timmins’s series, prompts lawmakers to search for better, smarter ways to keep kids from turning to crime and to create a corrections system that releases inmates intent on joining society, not a gang.