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CJCCJ/Volume 64.1 (2022)

Street gangs throughout the world (3rd ed)

By Herbert C. Covey
Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Publisher. 2021. 282 p.

Over the last two decades in North America, there has undoubtedly been an increase in awareness of gangs and gang activity by justice systems, social service delivery systems, and even the lay public. To recognize that gangs and organized crime groups are compelling and intriguing, one need not look further than the successes of TV shows and movies such as The Sopranos, Peaky Blinders, The Irishman, American Gangster, and countless others. Yet when Hollywood sensationalism is stripped away, a more representative perspective on gangs and gang life emerges. Herbert C. Covey’s Street Gangs Throughout the World (3rd Edition) provides such a perspective. Covey uses a critical and objective lens to examine the macro and micro influences, systemic factors, and watershed moments that have led to street gangs’ rise and continued foothold in over 50 countries and regions worldwide.

Following completing his Ph.D. in Sociology in 1979, Covey spent much of his career in human services, child protection, and juvenile justice. His expansive expertise and interest provide a substantive foundation for his publications in street gangs, substance use, child maltreatment, history, and slavery from his career achievements in these areas. Although I am not intimately familiar with all of Covey’s works, his previously published subject matter was noticeably and intelligently leaned upon throughout this book. Further to this, his previous publications on street gangs make him aptly suited to write this updated edition.

As prefaced by the author, Street Gangs Throughout the World is a “general review of some of what we know about street gangs throughout the world. It does not claim to cover every aspect of research nor does it purport to include every country that has gangs” (p. viii). Covey delivers on his promise of a general summary over seven brief and easily read chapters. The book’s first part (Chapters 1 and 2) orients the reader to the critical definitions, comparative perspectives, and major themes in gang literature. Here, Covey reorients the reader away from the anticipated and often belaboured criminological theories and understandings of crime. Instead, he presents a sociological perspective that explores the effects of modernization, urbanization, and social disorganization on the rise and persistence of street gangs. As the author succinctly explains, “an underlying theme is that the breakdown of the prior stable normative order leads to increased criminal activity, such as street gangs” (p. 20).

In the first chapter of the book, Covey touches on a wide range of street gang elements that required reading to familiarize oneself with this topic. First, the author provides the obligatory discussion of street gang-related aspects, including the relationship between culture and gangs and the macro- and micro-level factors influencing gangs’ formation, solidification, and disintegration. Like the antecedents to most other forms of crime, the usual individual, familial, community and societal suspects (i.e., poverty, inequality, socioeconomic status, violence, ethnicity, family breakdown, etc.) are rounded up here and are demonstrated to play a critical role in gang formation, membership, and function. Second, Covey provides an important analysis of the theoretical approaches to gangs using both the canon of founding sociology theorists (notably Marx and Durkheim). In addition, he discusses alternative perspectives that include the Ecological-Opportunity view, life-course theories, and occupational therapy approaches. In keeping with the objective tone of the book, the author does not advocate for one theory over the other but instead presents an overarching insistence that sociological perspectives provide the most robust understanding of street gangs throughout the world.

Citing sources that span two decades, Covey amplifies the challenges of researchers and gang authorities who have long attempted to characterize and define gangs and gang activities uniformly. In this section, arguments within existing literature for the need to formulate a universal definition of a “street gang” are positioned mainly in terms of how its absence negatively impacts academics and researchers more so than law enforcement bodies and policymakers. This section also spends many pages lamenting the lack of a universally accepted definition of a gang. A critical analysis of the definition of a street gang developed by the Eurogang Program group monopolizes the remainder of this section. The analysis provides a brief overview of the ongoing debate surrounding the following five elements of the definition: “(1) the group in which a youth claimed membership has to be street oriented; (2) the group has to have existed at least 3 months or more; (3) the age of members has to range between 12 to 25 years; (4) illegal activities have to be acceptable to the group and; (5) the group has to engage in illegal activities” (p. 8).

The primary shortcoming of the book is found at the end of Chapter 1, in which Anti-Gang Programs are discussed. I will profess that my biases as a self-professed problem solver predispose me to gloss over an issue’s historical elements and spend most of my energy addressing the now what? response. However, it seems that much of this brief section references ‘gang suppression’ activities without fully operationalizing them or identifying their relationship with the sociological factors that give rise to gangs in the first place. Although the author’s preface clearly articulates his intention to provide only a summary on various street gang elements and dynamics, I would argue that the complex issue of street gangs requires a more robust discussion about how to address them. From a cursory review of studies and resources on gang suppression and intervention, various strategies and holistic response models appear to have been developed based on the same sociological risk and protective factors that explain street gang formation and solidification (Spergel et al., 1994; Densley, 2011; Swan & Bates, 2017). While some attention is sporadically paid to the responses to street gangs in future chapters, a more extensive review of successful response models and interventions is missing.

Chapters 3 through 7 discuss the regionally specific elements and dynamics of street gangs in the United States, Canada, Europe, Russia, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Regions. Covey’s academic and professional background is thoroughly leveraged in these sections as he introduces the reader to the nuanced cultural, historical, and sociological features of street gangs in these areas. Expectedly, no two chapters or sections are alike given the unique factors that play a role in the emergence and perpetuity of street gangs. However, Covey contextualizes each chapter using the themes outlined in Chapters 1 and 2. This provides a linear and cohesive understanding of the factors that simultaneously connect and separate street gangs in various parts of the world. For example, the effects of immigration, modernization, and multi-marginalization look different in each region, yet they all have the same detrimental effect on individuals and societies. The influence of the United States gang culture on street gangs internationally is also prevalent throughout. Ultimately, Covey skillfully discusses these themes to come full circle and support his unformulated thesis on the sociological perspective of street gangs presented in earlier chapters.

Ultimately, Street Gangs Throughout the World offers a high-level overview of street gangs, which is all that can be expected given the limited advancement in the persistent issues around defining gangs and understanding their distinct regional hierarchies and organizational structures. This book is ideal as an introduction to street gangs and provides the reader with ample direction on which to pursue further inquiry if desired. However, this book will not achieve the threshold for those hoping for a more critical and/or nuanced understanding of street gangs.

CRYSTAL HINCKS, MA
FOURTEEN FIELDS RESEARCH AND EVALUATION


References

Densley, J. (2011). Ganging up on gangs: Why the gang intervention industry needs an intervention. The British Journal of Forensic Practice 13(1): 12-23.

Spergel, I., Curry, D., Chance, R., Kane, C., Ross, R., Alexander, A., … and Oh, S. (1994). Gang suppression and intervention: Problem and response: Research summary. Washington DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Swan, R. S., & Bates, K. A. (2017). Loosening the ties that bind: The hidden harms of civil gang injunctions in San Diego County. Contemporary justice review 20(1): 132-153.

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