The Gang Tax

A few days ago, New York’s State Senate passed a bill making it illegal to recruit someone into a street gang.

In the never-ending fight by city officials and legislators to combat gangs, this is one of the latest efforts to outmaneuver gang members. Other similar initiatives have included: city ordinances that limit two or more gang members from hanging out in public space; school codes that ban the use of hats, clothing, and colors that signify gang membership; and public housing authorities that evict leaseholders who allow gang members (or any other so-called “criminal”) to live inside the housing unit.

These laws rarely lead to reductions in gang membership, gang violence, or gang crime. In fact, police officers I know find these ordinances and statutes a waste of time. Cops would much rather “control and contain” gang activity. Most officers who work in inner cities understand that you cannot eliminate gang activity entirely — arrest two gang members and you will find a dozen others waiting in line to take their places. Police know that gang members have great knowledge about local crimes, so they rely on a trade off: keep gangs isolated to particular areas, don’t let their criminal activities spill over into other spaces, and use high-ranking gang members for information.

This strategy actually prevents membership from expanding, at least in big cities where gangs are economically oriented. Beat cops who run the streets make sure that gang leaders don’t prey upon too many kids for recruiting purposes. In effect, this kind of policing limits the reach of gangs. It may not be socially desirable policing, but it works if you measure effectiveness by reductions in gang membership.

I called a few gang leaders in Chicago and asked them what the greatest obstacles to recruiting and retaining members are. Here are a few answers:

Michael (30 years old, African-American) was insistent that today’s gangs are mostly “drug crews,” i.e., businesses.

We always lose people to jobs. If a n–er in my crew gets a good job, he’s gone. So, as long as there ain’t no work for a brother, then we have no problem. Most of us have families, we’re not in school beating each other up, acting stupid. We’re out here on the streets trying to make our money. You got all these people telling us to get an education — I’m making thousands of dollars each month. Why do I need to go to school?

Darnell (32 years old, African-American) said police should be more creative.

Let’s say you catch one of us — I’d make the boy wear a dress and makeup. Maybe for two weeks. Let the boy go to school looking like a girl. Let him walk the streets looking like he’s gay. I guarantee you, we’d have a hard time holding on to n–rs if you do sh–t like that!

Jo-Jo (49 years old, half Puerto Rican, half black) said the cops should do:

… what they did when I was younger. Drop a Disciples off in Vicelords territory late at night. Let him get his a– kicked. And keep doing it! I remember growing up and all these cats used to get beat up. You know what? This would actually help me because it would get rid of a lot of these folks who do nothing for us except cause trouble. In fact, I’d be willing to work with the cops if they want to call me. Maybe we could help each other out?

My good friend Dorothy never ran a gang, but as an outreach worker who helps young people in the ghetto turn their lives around, she has pretty good insight. She recalled some of her own gang-intervention efforts in the 1990’s and came up with the following suggestion:

Tax the n–rs! That’s what I would do if I was the mayor. Don’t put them in jail, but take 50 percent of their money. You know what I mean? Find them on the streets if they’re misbehaving, grab half of their cash, and put it into a community fund. Let the block clubs have it, let the churches have the money. I guarantee you that a lot of brothers will think twice if you get to their pocketbooks.

Interesting thought. I wonder whether market forces might exert the kind of discipline required to limit the involvement of young people in gang-controlled drug economies. If, as Treasury Secretary Paulson reminds us, “market discipline” is sufficient to regulate the financial markets, perhaps it could be effective in the underground. Oh, yes, I forgot about Bear Stearns. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Cameron Williams

William F. Buckley, Jr. had the right answer-legalize drugs. Scarce resources could then be dedicated to treatment, to better effect.

Shaun G

Tomo (re: #29) -- The right to organize applies only when you're engaged in legal activities. When one of the primary purposes of organizing a group is to commit crimes, that's conspiracy.


anon- he's 30. he's at the top of the pyramid now.


What constitutes "recruitment" and "gang" anyway? Doesn't this fundamentally violate someone's rights to organize?


There's no quicker and easier way to bankrupt gangs than to legalize drugs. Authorize pharmacies to sell them to people over 18. (or 21)

Because there's no risk for the legal sale, they can sell the drugs at much lower prices. Gangs won't be able to compete with this due to their risk premium and will have to drop out of the market.

You still have people buying drugs, just like they are now, but at least the sale is taxed and the gang violence a thing of the past. Side benefit of reducing the prison population, again saving a fortune nationwide.


Re: Michael (30 years old, African-American) "I'm making thousands of dollars each month. Why do I need to go to school?"

Doesn't this run contrary to what what freakonomics reads, that the majority of drug dealers make less than minimum wage when you look at how much they earn compared to the amount of time they spend trying to sell?


22 -

That's not what season 3 was saying, that's what Carcetti was saying. Big difference, and not one that David Simon agreed with.


Come on guys, think bigger. There's no single cause for gang "problems" (problems being relative). This law will have somewhat of an effect right? I mean, now when the 5-0 picks up a recruiter they can hit the "offender" with this violation and get more from him. I highly doubt this law was passed with the intention being the cure-all. Every little bit helps I would say.

About the market do you kill a specific market segment of an economy (especially when the black market is so strong? Has that ever been successful? If so, can we do that here?


As usual no one addresses the real problem of ... How the drug dealers get the drugs in the first place. Supply last time I heard had a pretty big impact on demand. When countries that owe us millions in south/central america stop having 50%of their GDP coming from drug growing operations we will no longer have an incentive to not take part in the war on drugs. People in these neighborhoods are looking for viable options to provide for their families, selling drugs = big bucks. We need to support people/organizations that are providing services/programs that expose these people to other means of supporting themselves. Season 3 of the "Wire" was really saying what a horrible idea it was to essentialy, give up on a group of people in these country when they really needed help the most.

Shaun G

If it really is the availability of better jobs that suck away members from a gang, then I wonder what would happen if a charitable organization were to subsidize a company's cost of hiring such workers. Any thoughts?

Shaun G


@10 and 12:

You obviously haven't read Sudhir's book ;)

Robert L.

It's interesting to contrast the reaction to the Bush administration's unconstitutional efforts to fight terrorism with equally unconstitutional efforts to restrict gang violence and 'fight the drug war'. Suspending freedom of assembly (1st amendment), the right to bear arms (2nd amendment), freedom from unreasonable search and seizure (4th amendment)and safety from having property seized without due process and just compensation (5th amendment) all seem to be fair game as soon as someone can shout "gangs" or "drugs." Maybe the solution is to start quartering troops in gang members houses . . .


How do you simply "call up" gang leaders? Wow.


Where is the "market discipline" when the Federal Reserve is backing the bailout of Bear Stearns?
Bear Stearns should go bankrupt. That is the natural regulation of the market.


Stephen and FEB,

You guys really ought to read Freakonomics.


Amit - since econ 101.


I love how you mentioned "I called a few gang leaders in Chicago..." Do you have them on speed dial? Are their numbers in the local yellow pages? Did you Google them? Haha.

Somehow I don't think gang members are really too scared of the illegality of recruiting. We're talking about people who deal drugs and carry guns in some cases. Wait, I can't ask little johnny to join for fear of breaking the law. Just a lame attempt by law makers to pat themselves on the back and say they are doing something.


Doesn't this fall in the realm that drug policy reformers (legalizers) have been saying. That drug laws create a black market drug trade that is highly lucrative and dangerous that sort of subsidizing these gangs.

Sudhir, what is your position of criminal justice policy that reject a prohibition model.


I can't help but notice an interesting feature of N.Y.T. style standard. For the singular spelling, is "n-er." But the plural isn't "n-ers"; it's "n-rs".

Is that in the style guide? :)


A great post as usual by Sudhir. I think he should get his own blog!