The past 15 years have witnessed a dramatic resurgence in youth gang activity in the United States. One of several types of gangs (others include prison gangs, motorcycle gangs, hate groups, ideological gangs, and adult street gangs), youth gangs are not new to the American landscape. Modern youth gangs, however, are more dangerous than their historical counterparts because of the growing drug economy, the decreasing availability of legitimate employment opportunities in urban areas, increased mobility due to the availability of automobiles, and greater access to more lethal weapons. Moreover, gangs are no longer limited to densely populated urban areas but have an increasing presence in suburbs, small cities, and rural towns.
What Is A Gang?
There is a great deal of heterogeneity within youth gangs and consequently considerable disagreement over how to define them. Some gangs are loosely knit groups of youth with no specific function, whereas others are highly structured criminal organizations with identifiable leadership. In some regions, gangs are organized around specific geographic locations or turf; in others, however, they are not. There have been several attempts to develop a definition that is broad enough to encompass the varying manifestations of gangs while at the same time specific enough to exclude other youthful groups that may occasionally engage in deviant activities (e.g., fraternities). A commonly used definition identifies youth gangs as groups that (1) consist of more than two individuals within a limited age range (typically 12 to 24); (2) share a sense of identity as evidenced by the use of a collective name, colors or symbols, specific clothing styles, or hand signs; (3) show some sign of permanence, lasting for a year or more; and (4) are involved in criminal activity.
History Of Gangs In The United States
The earliest youth gangs may have originated in Europe or Mexico. Although no one is certain when these groups began to emerge in the United States, there are accounts of youth gangs in this country as early as 1783. The first gangs appeared in large cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, followed by appearances in Chicago and, more recently, Los Angeles. The first modern criminal gang was the Forty Thieves gang that formed in the Five Points district of New York City in 1820; although primarily an adult gang, it later gave rise to a juvenile group called the Forty Little Thieves. Social scientific study of youth gangs began in the early 20th century and suggested that the earliest youth gangs may have spontaneously evolved from neighborhood play groups as a result of changing social conditions, particularly increasing urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. During the past two centuries there have been four distinct periods of intense gang proliferation and activity in the United States, each of which is also characterized by rapid immigration and population shifts, social and political unrest, and industrial and technological change: the late 1800s, the 1920s, the 1960s, and the 1990s.
Prevalence Of Gangs
The most widely used estimate of the prevalence of gangs is the National Youth Gang Center’s annual survey of law enforcement agencies nationwide. In 2002, there were about 21,500 youth gangs in the United States with 731,500 members. The actual prevalence of gangs may be higher because these estimates represent only those gangs and gang members that are known to law enforcement officials. Official records may particularly underestimate the prevalence of females in youth gangs; there have been reports that law enforcement officials often discount claims of gang membership by females. Estimates from youth self-report studies have indicated that anywhere from 2.7% to 10.6% of American adolescents are involved in gangs. However, these studies are limited by their regional scope, making it difficult to generalize their findings to gangs across the nation.
Although rates of gang membership are higher among Hispanic and African American youth, most gang members are white. Data from the National Youth Gang Center estimate females to constitute 14% of gang members; other studies have produced estimates ranging from 2% to 46%. Most members of youth gangs range from 15 to 17 years of age. Most gang members leave gangs after 1 year, with less than 5% remaining in these groups for 4 or more years. However, the increasing organization of gangs around drug sales provides a lucrative motivation for members to remain in these groups into adulthood.
Etiology Of Gang Membership
Research has identified community, family, peer, academic, and individual characteristics associated with gang membership. Gang-involved youth are more likely to live in communities characterized by social disorganization, high crime and gang activity, lack of viable employment and recreational opportunities, and greater availability of drugs and firearms. Gang-involved youth report spending more time with and having closer relationships with peers who engage in delinquency, substance use, or gang activity. Compared with nongang youth, gang members are significantly more likely to live in families characterized by inconsistent discipline, higher levels of family conflict, and lower levels of parental monitoring and supervision and parental warmth. They are also more likely to report having parents and siblings with a history of involvement in gangs or other criminal behavior. Individual characteristics associated with gang membership include endorsing favorable attitudes toward antisocial and sensation-seeking behaviors, exhibiting defiant attitudes and behavior, having low commitment to school and low educational aspirations, and exhibiting a history of academic failure and school-based behavior problems. Common coexisting psychological disorders include learning disabilities, substance use disorders, and conduct and oppositional defiant disorder.
Function Of Gangs
In addition to the friendship and support found in typical youth peer networks, gangs meet psychosocial needs that are unfulfilled by other social institutions. Gang members often describe gangs as providing a sense of family, love, and discipline. Indeed, many gangs have rules governing their members’ behavior and accompanying sanctions for violating these rules. Gang members also frequently report having joined gangs because of the need for safety and protection in their neighborhoods. Ironically, though, gang members are more likely to be victimized by crime, particularly violent crime, than are youth who are not in gangs, and female gang members are at greater risk for sexual victimization.
The key feature that distinguishes gangs from other youth peer groups is that gang members have significantly higher rates of involvement in criminal activity, including drug sales, weapons possession, theft, and aggression toward others. Gang members are also significantly more likely to use alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs than are their non–gang-involved peers. Gang-involved youth account for a disproportionate amount of juvenile crime, and although their rates of delinquency and drug use decline upon their departure from gangs, the rates do not reach the low levels shown before gang membership and also remain higher than those of youth who never join gangs.
Prevention And Intervention Efforts
Despite the widespread public concern about gangs, there has been little systematic evaluation of prevention and intervention efforts. Gang prevention efforts have focused on preventing youth from joining gangs as well as interrupting gang formation. The most well-known modern prevention program is the Gang Resistance Education and Training Program (GREAT), a 9-week program for middle school students developed and delivered by law enforcement agencies. The curriculum includes topics such as conflict resolution, goal setting, resisting peer pressure, and the effect of gangs. A multisite evaluation of this program found that it has small but statistically significant effects on reducing gang activity immediately following program participation (9.8% of GREAT participants reported gang membership vs. 11.4% of nonparticipants); however, a longitudinal study found no short-term or long-term effects of the GREAT program.
Intervention efforts have largely focused on reducing the criminal activity of gang members through detached worker programming. Begun in the 1940s, this method involved deploying social workers into communities to provide alternative activities for gangs, including tutoring, weekly club meetings, sports activities, and individual counseling. Evaluation results for such programs have found them to be largely ineffective. Indeed, in some cases, they have resulted in increased gang cohesiveness. Other intervention efforts have included providing alternatives to gang life, particularly education and employment, establishing truces between rival gangs to reduce intergang violence, and providing alternative recreational activities. In addition to these formal attempts at intervening in youth gang membership, there exist several naturally occurring interventions. Gang members frequently report that the most common reasons for leaving gangs, other than prison and death, include growing too old for the gang (“age-out”), getting married (“marry-out”) or having a child, acquiring legitimate employment (“job-out”), or moving to another neighborhood.
Largely, however, resolution of gang problems has been left to police and law enforcement officials through suppression efforts. Using the combined efforts of police, prosecution, and incarceration, suppression efforts are aimed at reducing the criminal activity of gangs and disbanding them. Suppression programs typically involve dedicating additional financial and workforce resources to combat the gang program, often through the establishment of police gang intelligence units, and enacting legislation that imposes additional sanctions for gang-related criminal activity. These programs have shown mixed results; some have had substantial impact in reducing gang crime, whereas others have shown no demonstrable effect.
Youth gangs pose a significant public health concern to the individuals who participate in them as well as to those individuals living in communities affected by them. Current intervention efforts rely heavily on suppression. However, if this social problem is to be adequately addressed, mental health professionals and developmental researchers must become more involved in developing and implementing effective treatment programs.
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- Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org