The conventional wisdom is wrong, WVU economics professor Dr. Russell Sobel argues, when it contends that crime increases because gangs form.
On the contrary, he argues in “Youth Gangs as Pseudo-Governments: Implications for Violent Crime.” When governments fail to defend the rights of individuals from violence, he contends, youth gangs form as protective agencies.
“In a society without law and order, individuals are under constant threat of being victims of aggression and crime,” Sobel says. “Gangs form to provide this protection. Yes, they use violence to enforce rules and retaliate, just like a government does in the criminal justice system, but the net effect of gangs is to reduce violence.
“Breaking up gangs does not reduce crime, it increases it,” he said. “To reduce crime, governments need to do a better job protecting individual rights, particularly the rights of youths against aggression from other youths.”
Dr. Sobel’s work received the 2009 Georgescu-Roegen Prize for the best academic article published in the Southern Economic Journal. The piece was chosen among submissions from all fields of economic research and from economists around the world. It was also noticed by editors at Forbes Magazine and is scheduled to be featured on forbes.com.
Sobel, a professor in WVU’s College of Business and Economics, studied monthly statistics on gang membership and crime for Los Angeles from April 1998 to March 2004. Instead of showing increases in gang membership followed by higher crime rates, Sobel says the statistics showed the opposite. High crime areas tend to attract gang activity, but not because gangs lead to more crime. Rather it’s because crime leads to the formation of gangs, Sobel said.
“An analogy to consider is the fact that most 40-year-old men aren’t in gangs except for in one place, prison,” said Sobel. “In prison there is a lot of violence and crime. Gangs form and prisoners join them for protection.”
Coauthored with Brian J. Osoba, a professor at Central Connecticut State University and former doctoral student at WVU, the article suggests improving law enforcement can decrease levels of gang violence because a government failing to enforce the rights of people results in gangs stepping up and filling that role.
Sobel has published more than 150 books and articles and has received numerous awards for teaching and researching. He has had research featured in various national publications and has appeared on several national news broadcasts for his work.
Sobel will receive the award at the Southern Economic Association Conference in November in San Antonio. The association is one of the oldest regional economics associations in the United States and is the eighth oldest American scholarly journal in economics.
Contact: Dr. Russell Sobel