Violence in Chicago is often attributed by outsiders to the idea that black residents harbor hatred for one another and do not respect their communities. Although this holds true to some extent and in some instances, it misses the broader issue of poverty, unemployment, and lack of good education in the communities where crime is more rampant. In an environment where survival, as opposed to career aspirations and dreams, is at the forefront of many young minds, the war zone in the streets of Chicago is often unavoidable. Much of the city’s funding to reduce violence goes to the Chicago Police Department, while the programs that provide community building, mentorship, and job opportunities are left behind. With many young people involved in gangs joining at elementary school-age, funding these programs would be more conducive to helping young people in Chicago than funding law enforcement which largely deals out punishment.

Poverty and Crime

According to the Chicago Data Portal, neighborhoods with high crime, poverty, and unemployment rates are mostly on the South and West sides of Chicago. Crime is a means of survival for some. Losing a job and having to feed one’s family leads many in this situation to steal and engage in other delinquent behaviors. Loss of jobs has been a major factor in poverty for many Chicagoans. It was reported that approximately 89,100 jobs were lost between the years 2000 and 2010. These losses had the most impact on lower income residents in under-resourced communities.

Cognition and Crime

Many in Chicago gangs originally joined during their elementary school years around the age of twelve. At such a young age, a healthy manner of emotion regulation has most likely not developed yet and living in an environment where disputes involving violence is prevalent, children are more likely to engage in these acts. As these kids get older in these gangs, they may not learn to control their emotions enough to think before they act. Living in a high stress environment with a school system that demands a lack of physical activity (i.e. movement in the classroom) makes it difficult for these children to learn. Having police officers patrolling schools indoctrinates youth with the idea that misbehavior warrants being criminalized by police. Intervention in student disputes and misbehavior by police officers is mentally damaging to youth. A school environment patrolled by officers who are trained to punish criminals predisposes police to use force when engaging in disciplinary action. Most police training involves use of force training and very little on de-escalation and communication skills. Even though some efforts have been made to improve communication skills, empathy, and de-escalation skills in police departments, the research has not been very promising in the long-term so far.

Gangs And Social Support

Andre Thomas, former leader of the Gangster Disciples, described current gangs as cliques rather than the large gangs of the past. In his interview with Al Jazeera, he went on to say that these gangs were made up of a lot of kids. Social support and community is very important to children as they try to find where they fit in. When schools are closed, communities are scattered, and children have to cross gang lines to get to school, the likelihood of children joining these gangs increases as a mode of survival and social cohesion.

Potential Solutions

READI Chicago – a program that incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy and provides jobs for participants who are transitioning into the workforce. It is a two-year program. The 18 months of employment allow at-risk participants to gain the skills to maintain a job and transition into the regular workforce. This is especially important for those who were incarcerated at young ages. Cognitive behavioral therapy is being implemented in order to condition at-risk participants to react less impulsively to split-second decisions that involve violence such as shooting someone. Situations of criminal behavior and police presence are similar in that impulsivity and reactivity is prevalent. Police sometimes have to react quickly and may do so even when the situation doesn’t warrant it. Taking down or stopping the suspect is more salient than negotiating with the potential suspect given the disproportionate amount of time spent training police in use of force tactics. Along with this, police expressing condescending attitudes and aggressive behavior towards young people to get them to fall in line is not a successful tactic. However, having programs like READI Chicago that work to improve emotion regulation and critical thinking will help young people live better lives and make better decisions.


Funding programs that focus on reform (mentorship, cognitive behavioral therapy, job training and placement programs) rather than on punishment (law enforcement) is more conducive to improving the quality of life for people in Chicago. The lack of jobs, poverty, and the broken education system that tears apart communities helps to sustain the violence in Chicago. Mental development is altered by all of these factors and expecting Chicago communities to fix themselves is unrealistic. The money needed to help these communities goes to law enforcement, not the communities themselves. In order for gang members to “put the guns down” on a large scale, the city would have to actually invest in these communities so that young people in impoverished areas of Chicago can see a realistic future outside of gangs.

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