SSA Centennial - Criminal Justice

Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

-Carl Vogel

Perhaps no recent faculty member at SSA is better known for having an impact on his or her field than George Herbert Jones Professor Emeritus Irving Spergel, whose comprehensive gang prevention, intervention, and suppression program has been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice and used in cities across the country. Spergel's decades of work on the issue is part of a long history at SSA of involvement in the criminal justice system, particularly issues of juvenile justice.

At the turn of the last century, Illinois was the first state in the country to mandate a separate court for children, and the School did some of the first research of how the juvenile court was performing with The Delinquent Child and the Home, a massive study of nearly every child appearing before the court in Chicago between its founding in 1899 and 1909. "The book provided the intellectual underpinnings for a Progressive approach to juvenile delinquency," Ellen Fitzpatrick writes in Endless Crusade of the report's "painstaking social research."

With a reputation as experts in juvenile justice, Edith Abbott and other key faculty members became a source for research and recommendations to the criminal justice system. Harrison Dobbs, a professor at the School, was named as the commissioner of the Citizen's Advisory Committee on the Cook County Juvenile Detention Home in the 1920s, and he later authored the psychiatric treatment plan for the juvenile detention home in St. Charles. The School itself also ran a demonstration project that supervised more than 160 juvenile offenders. The Wickersham Commission on Law Enforcement requested a wide ranging study on crime from SSA in the 1930s.

New faculty at SSA after WWII continued a focus on juvenile justice, probation, and incarceration. Margaret Rosenhein published extensively on the issues, and Charles Shireman was a leading scholar of juvenile delinquency, heading juvenile justice committees at the city and state level and serving as the director of the Correctional Outcomes Project, a joint effort between SSA and the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Spergel examined issues of community-based delinquency prevention programs, but his main focus was on gang violence, which arose from when he worked directly with gangs in New York in the late 1950s. "It seemed to me that the typical methods of dealing with gangs weren't working," he says. "Social organizations were pulling out of helping with the issue and the police were becoming more involved, but the gangs still existed, even after individuals were caught and jailed."

For four years in the late 1980s, Spergel and his team surveyed successful and unsuccessful anti-gang programs around the country, and from those findings arose the comprehensive gang model, also known as the Spergel model, a sophisticated mix of social intervention, educa- tion and job-training opportunities for youth, suppression of violence by the police, youth outreach by social service agencies, and communication between all the parties involved. "All gang kids are not the same, and this model recognizes that and provides different solutions for different problems," Spergel says.

From 1992 through 1995, the Chicago Police Department ran the Spergel model in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, and Spergel's team at SSA monitored the results. They found serious gang violence among the targeted gang members was lower than among members of comparable gangs in the area and that residents of the target area reported significantly greater improvement in community conditions and police effectiveness. In the years since, more than 20 cities around the country have adopted the model, from Mesa, Ariz., to Bloomington/Normal, Ill.—this April, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced a comprehensive gang reduction plan for his city—and it is the central component of the National Youth Gang Center.

Today, Jens Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy, and Associate Professor Harold Pollack have launched an initiative in conjunction with the City of Chicago to help reduce gun violence among youth in the city. Announced in April at SSA, the program has hired an executive director and started research to determine who is involved with youth violence.

"Next, we'll be trying to launch some new pilot programs in ways that can be rigorously evaluated, with an emphasis on trying to prevent youth violence by promoting positive youth development," Ludwig says. SSA's tradition of research that protects kids from crime—and helps others from entering into a life of crime—continues.