Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Nov. 16, 2009)


Today's gangsters don't wear ducktails


  By John Martin


Possibly the silliest TV comedy ever was the short-lived Gilliganís Island series. It debuted in 1964 and lasted just three seasons before being abruptly cancelled. Nonetheless, it has endured in syndication ever since and itís never difficult to locate the castaways on some specialty channel at some odd hour of the day or night.

One of the recurring scenes I often think of is the millionaire, Mr. Howell, sitting in a lawn chair drinking some tropical beverage out of a coconut shell while reading the stock market report in the financial pages. Every day Mr. Howell would kick back and check how his investments were doing by rereading the same newspaper over and over.

When I recall this scene I often think of many of the people responsible for criminal justice policy in this country. Or maybe itís the other way around; Iím not sure.

Back in the day, the conventional wisdom suggested that young boys joined gangs because they needed a sense of belonging and gang membership offered a surrogate family that would compensate for an unhappy home life. Numerous blockbuster films including The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story romanticized gangs and portrayed members as troubled, but well meaning young men.

It seems this view of the world made quite an impression because policy makers, academics and many others continue to embrace this decades-old depiction of gangs as a starting point for anti-gang strategies.

As a consequence, we have a myriad of efforts, initiatives, campaigns and other tactics all aimed at discouraging gang membership. These generally amount to some variation on the "investing in youth" theme and are routinely aimed at providing extra curricular and leisure activities to youth at risk. Somehow, itís still widely believed that if kids have skateboard parks and the opportunity to spray paint murals on brick walls they wonít need to join a gang for comradeship and socialization.

All this suggests a level of naivete and nostalgia that is at once reckless and without basis. The reality is that todayís gangs have nothing in common with the images from yesteryear where greaseballs flashed switchblades and planned rumbles behind the roller rink.

Today, even the smaller gangs have heavily entrenched associations with organized crime and the stakes are higher than theyíve ever been. We could do ourselves all a favour by putting to rest once and for all the notion that youth and young adults join gangs because theyíre looking for a family. The people joining gangs today are doing it for one reason and one reason only; the allure of fast money for cars, girls and anything else they might fancy.

Gang membership is all about the lucrative drug business, yet we continue to think weíre dealing with a generation of leather-jacketed orphans who are merely trying to belong. And until we have meaningful legislation that allows us to play hardball, nothing is going to change. We are handicapped at every stage of this battle by legislation and policies that put law enforcement and prosecutors at a distinct disadvantage. Under the present system, we can do little more than make an occasional dent in this enterprise.

Perhaps the answer to gangs in 1964 was family counseling and more basketball courts. But this kid glove approach is laughable in a day and age where the illegal business is among the biggest industries in the country.

Weíre no more likely to turn things around under the present strategy than Mr. Howell is going to read that the value of his portfolio grew in the last quarter.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2009