The more I read about youth in gangs, the more I realize how devoid of thoughtful reflection their lives are.
A person who can't self-reflect periodically is a person at the mercy of his or her impulses. The capacity for self-reflections develops because the adults who raise a child show themselves capable of it. The adults habitually admit when they are wrong (which means they reflect on and assess their own behavior). They also habitually evaluate whether their own actions, or those of leaders, are producing the desired results, and they modify the actions if the results aren't what is wanted.
Self-reflection, and reflection more generally on one's environment and community, also develops when a person can read about one's world and then express one's own thoughts in writing -- maybe not in extensive essays, but enough to jot down ideas, sort through them, and develop a plan of action that isn't only about getting what one wants, but also takes others' needs into consideration as well.
Gang members don't do that. They are often angry from years back (even if they are only 15 years old, the average age of submitting to gang membership requirements). They might have two married biological parents who are at least decently educated but who handle conflict very poorly and discipline their children either with neglect or with unjustly punitive measures. The parents don't admit they are wrong, and definitely do not give their children any voice in determining whether a relationship is just. When an outlet is offered for the child's anger and outrage, the child takes it up.
I believe that if writing were introduced as part of juvenile corrective measures, it would contribute enormously to development of the young person's capacity to change. The testimony I heard from the members of the Council for Thought and Action (COTA) was that, when they came to a point of reflecting on their own actions or on those of others (like having seen a friend violently murdered, or having violently harmed another), they reached a turning point: They started to turn away from gang life.
Perhaps writing IS used in some juvenile corrections programs. I'd like to find out. I think it should be presented to youthful offenders, not as therapy, but as a tool that they should have the power to use -- not only to evaluate their own actions, but to express their outrage at the unjust actions of the adults in their lives -- not just family, but also teachers or law enforcement officers. Perhaps having these testimonies in written form would help the adults around them to change in necessary ways. At least, it would help the young gang members to decide how to handle the injustice in their lives without themselves being perpetrators of injustice.