Entries

Growing Up: Issues Affecting America's Youth Growing Up: Issues Affecting America's Youth Further reading

NON JS

Violence and Gangs

Chapter 8: Violence and Gangs

THE SCOPE OF THE GANG PROBLEM
CHARACTERISTICS OF GANGS
GANG CRIME AND VIOLENCE
CONSEQUENCES OF BEING IN A GANG

THE SCOPE OF THE GANG PROBLEM

Gangs have a long history in the United States, dating back to the 1800s. The United States became a so-called melting pot in the nineteenth century as people of diverse ethnicities and religions entered the country. Some immigrants joined gangs to help them gain a group identity, defend themselves against other groups, and establish a unified presence. Even though people feared street gangs of the nineteenth century, the gangs of the twenty-first century pose a greater threat to public safety than in years past.

Most criminal activities of the street gangs of the early twentieth century involved delinquent acts or petty crimes, such as brawls with rival gangs. As the twentieth century progressed, however, gangs began getting involved with more serious crimes. By the late twentieth century, law enforcement officials had come to regard gang members in general as serious criminals who engaged in the illegal trafficking of drugs or weapons and used intimidation tactics and violence to pursue their goals. Respondents to the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS) emphasized that a gang was defined by involvement in group criminal activity along with some degree of definition of a group as a separate entity, such as having a name, displaying distinct colors or symbols, or engaging in activities to protect the group's territory. Law enforcement officers note that in the 1980s and 1990s more and more gang members began to support themselves through dealing drugs, such as crack cocaine and heroin. Many were said to have easy access to high-powered weapons. In addition, the proliferation of gangs in the late twentieth century meant that groups moved beyond city boundaries into suburban and rural areas as well. This movement into new territories occurred about the same time that youth violence surged in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Researchers noted various reasons for the growth of gangs during the end of the twentieth century. According to Finn-Aage Esbensen of the University of Nebraska, in Preventing Adolescent Gang Involvement (September 2000, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/182210.pdf), American society witnessed a reemergence of youth gang activity and media interest in this phenomenon in the 1980's and 1990's. Colors, Boyz n the Hood, other Hollywood productions, and MTV brought Los Angeles, California, gang life to suburban and rural America. These media portrayals might have further enticed youth to become involved in gangs.

In an effort to track the growth and activities of gangs, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's (OJJDP) National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) began conducting the NYGS in 1996. Arlen Egley Jr. and Christina E. O'Donnell of the NYGC note in Highlights of the 2006 National Youth Gang Survey (July 2008, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/fs200805.pdf) that for purposes of the survey, researchers annually query all police and sheriff departments serving cities and counties with populations of 50,000 or more (25,000 or more before 2002), as well as all suburban county police and sheriff's departments. Because gang membership has moved beyond large metropolitan areas, the NYGS also queries a random sample of law enforcement agencies in cities with populations between 2,500 and 25,000 and in rural counties. Not all jurisdictions that receive the survey respond, but a solid majority do. Survey participants are instructed to provide information on youth gangs within their jurisdictions. Motorcycle gangs, prison gangs, adult gangs, and hate or ideology-based groups are not included in the sample.

Statistics about gang membership show that the increased concern about gangs had its basis in the growth of gangs during the 1990s. According to Walter B. Miller of the OJJDP, in The Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States: 19701998 (April 2001, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/181868-1.pdf), during the 1970s about 1% of U.S. cities and about 40% of the states reported having problems with youth gangs. By the late 1990s the percentage of U.S. cities with gang problems grew to 7%, and youth gangs were

 
TABLE 8.1 Percentage of law enforcement agencies reporting gang problems, 200206
  Gang problems reported in 2006 (%) Gang problems ever reported, 20022006 (%)
SOURCE: Table 1. Percentage of Law Enforcement Agencies Reporting Gang Problems, 20022006, in Highlights of the 2006 National Youth Gang Survey, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, July 2008, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/fs200805.pdf (accessed November 11, 2008)
Rural counties 14.9 27.4
Smaller cities 32.6 48.3
Suburban counties 51.0 61.5
Larger cities 86.4 90.5
Overall estimate in study population 33.3 47.3

reported in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Gang growth in cities soared in the 1980s and 1990s, with the number of gangs reported increasing by 281%. Between 1995 and 1998 gang activity was recorded in 1,100 cities and 450 counties where it had not been reported previously.

At first, gangs tended to be big-city problemsthe NYGS indicated that most cities with populations over 100,000 reported that the proliferation of gangs became a problem between 1985 and the early 1990s. After that time, however, gangs spread to smaller areas. It is true that the larger the population, the greater the likelihood of the existence of gangs in that area. Nine out of 10 (90.5%) law enforcement agencies in larger cities reported gang problems between 2002 and 2006. (See Table 8.1.) However, nearly half (48.3%) of all cities with a population of 2,500 to 49,999, nearly two-thirds (61.5%) of all suburban counties, and over a quarter (27.4%) of rural counties reported gang problems in their jurisdictions during this same period.

The huge growth in gangs and gang membership slowed in the late 1990s. Comparing statistics between the 1996 and 2000 surveys, Arlen Egley Jr. of the NYGC finds in the fact sheet National Youth Gang Survey Trends from 1996 to 2000 (February 2002, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/fs200203.pdf) that the proportion of respondents that reported youth gangs in their jurisdiction decreased over the survey years, from 53 percent in 1996 to 40 percent in 2000. In 2006, 33.3% of jurisdictions reported gang problems. (See Table 8.1.) In National Youth Gang Survey, 19992001 (July 2006, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/209392.pdf), Arlen Egley Jr., James C. Howell, and Aline K. Major of the NYGC estimate that there were approximately 21,500 gangs present in the United States in 2002. These numbers increased again by 2006. In that year, Egley and O'Donnell indicate that approximately 26,500 gangs with 785,000 gang members were active in the United States.

CHARACTERISTICS OF GANGS

According to the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment (2005, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/what/2005_threat_assesment.pdf), by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations, the modern street gang, or youth gang as they are often called, takes many forms. Individual members, gang cliques, or entire gang organizations engage in trafficking in drugs; operating car theft rings; committing homicides, assaults, robberies, and other felonies; and terrorizing neighborhoods. Some of the most ambitious gangs spread out from their home jurisdictions to other cities and states. Yet, some of the movement occurs simply because the gang members' families move to other areas, especially during times of economic growth. However, many gang members come from impoverished, immigrant, or transitional neighborhoods, where children are born into or must contend with second- and third-generation street gangs.

David Starbuck, James C. Howell, and Donna J. Lind-quist examine in Hybrid and Other Modern Gangs (December 2001, http://www.iir.com/nygc/publications/hybrid_and_other_modern_gangs.pdf) survey data and current research to offer a portrait of the modern youth gang. Various stereotypes exist about gangs. For example, the stereotypical view holds that youth gangs are tightly organized groups made up of African-American or Hispanic inner-city males operating under strict codes of conduct with explicit punishments for infractions of the rules. However, the new hybrid gang can have members from both genders and from different racial groups as well as members having radically opposing viewpoints.

According to Starbuck, Howell, and Lindquist, a modern gang might be made up of African-Americans, white supremacists, and females. The gangs are found in schools and the military and in territories as small as shopping malls. Rules or codes of conduct may be unclear. Hybrid gangs sometimes borrow the symbols, graffiti, and even the names of established organizations, such as those based in Los Angeles or Chicago, Illinois (e.g., Bloods, Crips, or Latin Kings), but are actually locally based and have no connection to those organizations. Rival gangs may cooperate in criminal activities, and mergers of small gangs are common.

Starbuck, Howell, and Lindquist note that in places where gangs are a fairly recent phenomenon, drug sales and distribution are less likely to be major problems. Gang member involvement in drug sales is most prevalent in areas where gangs emerged between 1981 and 1985, at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. The gangs that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in Los Angeles and Chicago were highly organized and entrepreneurial and had control of drug distribution across wide areasand the violent crime that went with it.

Specific Gang Characteristics

Researchers, law enforcement, and community groups devote time to learning more about gangs and the types of characteristics they share. Much study has gone into gang slang, graffiti, hand signs, colors, and initiations, among other characteristics. The goal is to learn more about how gangs communicate and interact, both internally and externally, as well as test themselves and each other. If educators, law enforcement officials, and other concerned adults know how to recognize signs that young people may be involved in gangs, they will be better able to intervene.

Various gang members have created their own slang language. Even though some terms are used in gangs throughout the country, others are only used regionally and within certain gangs. Various terms originated with the infamous Bloods and Crips gangs of Los Angeles, who have been adversaries for many years. Examples include banging (involved in gang activities); colors (clothing of a particular color, such as jackets, shoes, or bandanas, worn by gang members to identify themselves as part of the gang); O.G. (original gangster, meaning a gang member who has killed someone, or a founding member or leader of a gang); tagging (marking a territory with graffiti); and turf (territory).

Graffiti has been a form of communication since ancient times. Meaning little scratches in Italian, graffiti appeared in cave dwellings, on Egyptian temples, and on other natural and human-made objects. In the twenty-first century there are several categories of graffiti; each type is used to get the artists' message out to anyone who can read it. Among the various types are personal musings, tagging, piecing or bombing, and gang graffiti.

The most common type of graffiti is that of personal musingsthoughts written down quickly in public places, such as restrooms and phone booths. Sometimes humorous, this type of graffiti might be of a sexual context or might include memorable quotes. Oftentimes, it concerns race relations. The 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment notes that both the South and the West have a high level of gang involvement in graffiti.

Tagging is another type of graffiti. A tag is a signature, or moniker, that may incorporate the artist's physical features or symbolize his or her personality. Tags are usually found on exterior building walls in urban areas. They may also appear on mass transit systems (buses and trains), freeway overpasses, and other areas for all to see and wonder how it got there. Tagging first appeared on the East Coast in the late 1960s and made its way to the West Coast by the 1980s. Taggers feel a sense of power and fame as more and more surfaces contain their tags.

Mural-type graffiti is known as piecing or bombing. The piece usually contains elaborate depictions or a montage of images. Oftentimes, slogans appear within the piece. Whereas tags can be done quickly, piecing may take up to several hours and require many cans of spray paint in many colors.

Gang graffiti employs all the aforementioned types. Gangs use graffiti for many purposes. In some instances, it may be a way of communicating messages to other gang members, functioning like a newsletter. Tags or monikers may be used to show a gang's hierarchy. Pieces may memorialize a dead gang member or pay tribute to the crimes committed by gang members. Some pieces may enumerate rules in the gang's society, whereas others may advertise a gang's presence in the neighborhood. Gang graffiti may also serve as a threatening message to rival gangsas if to say, Stay away from our turf.

In the twenty-first century, all types of graffiti are perceived as vandalism and a public nuisance and are punishable by law in the United States.

HAND SIGNS . Hand signs are a way of communicating concepts or ideas without using words. However, only those individuals who are familiar with the gesture's meaning are able to understand the message being conveyed. The rise of gang hand signs began in the Los Angeles area during the 1950s. Since that time, many gangs have developed hand signs for use between members of the group. Gang members throw or flash hand signs as a way of communicating among themselves, such as to send secret messages to other members within the group. For example, placing a clenched fist over the heart means, I'll die for you.

According to Recognize the Signs (November 2005, http://www.nj.gov/oag/gang-signs-bro.pdf), by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General and the Juvenile Justice Commission, each gang usually has a hand sign that symbolizes affiliation with the gang. For example, the Los Angeles Bloods use the sign B (creating a circle with the thumb and index finger, with the other fingers raised) to signify membership in the gang. Crips use a sign that represents the letter C. Even though this is a good way for gang members to recognize other members or affiliates, it can be used against them as well. A gang might use gestures created by a rival gang in an act called false flagging. When this occurs, a gang member will flash a rival gang's hand sign as a way to infiltrate the opposing gang or to lure an unsuspecting adversary into a bad situation.

Most gangs recognize many universal hand signals. One such ubiquitous sign dates back to World War II (19391945)the sign for victory, made by raising the index and middle fingers in the shape of a V. Gangs use many universal gestures to intimidate or dis (disrespect) rival gangs. A raised fist means power. Raising the index finger shows that the gang is number one and can beat all rivals. Gang hand signs may also appear prominently in gang graffiti.

FLYING THE COLORS . The idea of wearing different colors to identify opposing sides is not new. For example, during wartime opposing armies used different colors to symbolize their cause or protect their territory. Flags, uniforms, and the like were made in the color chosen to represent the nation or army at war. By donning the color of the army, soldiers were easily identified as being on one side or the other, and the enemy could be spotted easily. During the American Revolution (17751783), most of the British forces wore red uniforms; thus, they were called the Redcoats. To distinguish themselves from the British, the American colonists chose uniforms of blue.

This is also true of gangs. Recognize the Signs notes that for many years they have used color to distinguish themselves from rival gangs, while protecting their territory. Gang members often show support for the gang by wearing uniforms. Sporting clothes in the gang's colors, such as bandanas, shoes, jackets, jewelry, and other articles of clothing, shows a person's membership in one gang over another. For example, the two largest gangs in the Los Angeles area are the Bloods and the Crips. The Bloods use red, and the Crips use blue. Harold O. Levy notes in The Great Truancy Cover-Up (Yale Review, vol. 96, no. 3, July 2008) that during lunch time members of rival gangs play poker with red and blue playing cards to signify their gang affiliations. These colors are a way to symbolize the gang's unity, power, and pride.

However, flying the colors can be a disadvantage to gangs. The 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment indicates that even though colors make it easier for other gangs to identify rival members, they also help law enforcement and school officials recognize gang members. Law enforcement officials have been able to crack down on gang-related criminal activities by rounding up juveniles and youths wearing gang colors. In response to this new threat, many gangs have opted to forego their traditional colors and are developing new methods of identification. Like the modern-day army, gang members are beginning to camouflage themselves from their rivals, making their uniforms less conspicuous. Wearing a hat tilted to the left may show membership in a gang whose rivals are those who wear their pant legs rolled up. Gang members also use hand signs to identify their affiliation to certain groups.

RECRUITMENT AND INITIATION . People tend to organize themselves into groups of like-minded individuals to meet and participate in group-related activities. Groups offer fellowshipa way to bond with others who share similar interests or goals. This is no different for youth. Scouting, athletics, or debate clubs offer ways for kids to meet new friends and participate in various group activities, such as camping, learning crafts, and so on. The group organizers recruit members by offering experiences that a boy or girl might not have unless he or she is a member of the group.

Even though their activities are often criminal and their recruitment tactics highly aggressive, gangs operate in a similar fashion. Gang recruiters offer prospective members a chance to be a part of somethingto gain a sense of belonging that might be lacking in their life. Through the use of graffiti, the wearing of colors or tattoos, or intimidation tactics, the gang recruits new members to increase its power. In turn, some juveniles see this power in the schools or on the sides of buildings and may feel pressured into joining a gang. In some instances, gang members threaten the child or members of his or her family into joining, offering protection from bullies or rival gangs. Others might be eager to join a gang, thinking it is cool and exciting to be part of a clique that engages in criminal activity.

In response to gang recruitment activities, some states and localities have changed their laws to make any kind of gang recruitment, even if it does not involve criminal behavior, illegal. For example, in 2007 Illinois proposed to amend its criminal code by making street gang recruitment on school grounds or public property a felony, even if it did not involve the use or threat of physical force. Gang recruitment of any kind is illegal in Virginia, and recruitment of minors is a felony in New York.

As is common in some social clubs, many prospective gang inductees must undergo an initiation to show the members that they are worthy enough to be accepted into the group. Jumping in or clicking in to a gang usually involves some type of criminal activity for the inductee to perform. This may include stealing or damaging property, assaulting someone, or carrying and selling drugs. More radical forms of gang initiations may involve drive-by shootings or rape. In some instances, the inductee is beat-down by gang members using baseball bats or brass knuckles. In rare instances, a new member may be blessed in (not having to prove his or her worth) because a brother or sister is already a member of the gang. Some have difficulty trying to leave a gang. In these cases the youth might be pressured to remain in the clique or might be hesitant to leave because his or her friends and family (including parents) are in the gang.

Studies show that in many cases, the modern adolescent may refuse to join a gang or leave it without fear of reprisal, even though gangs try to maintain the illusion that leaving is impossible. Terence P. Thornberry, David Huizinga, and Rolf Leober report in The Causes and Correlates Studies: Findings and Policy Implications (Juvenile Justice, vol. 9, no. 1, September 2004) that this was borne out by OJJDP-supported longitudinal studies in Denver, Colorado (19881999), and Rochester, New York (19861997), as well as the Seattle Social Development Project in Washington (19852001), all of which showed that more than half (54% to 69%) of youths who joined gangs in those cities remained for one year or less, whereas only 9% to 21% stayed for three or more years. However, Egley, Howell, and Major find that gang membership appears to be getting older, which indicates that youth living in highly disadvantaged areas, where

there is an absence of economic opportunity, may remain in gangs to later ages.

INDICATORS OF GANG INVOLVEMENT . Many groupssuch as the California Attorney General's Office, Crime and Violence Prevention Center, in Gangs: A Community Response (June 2003, http://safestate.org/shop/files/GYV% 20Gangs_Comm_Resp_ADA.pdf); Phelan A. Wyrick and James C. Howell, in Strategic Risk-Based Response to Youth Gangs (Juvenile Justice, vol. 9, no. 1, September 2004); and the Department of Justice, in A Parent's Quick Reference Card (2008, http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/wie/justice_for_all/publications/GangCardforParentsEnglish.pdf) have compiled lists to aid parents, siblings, educators, and others in looking for signs that a youth has joined a gang. Even though a youth may present several warning signs that might indicate he or she is a gang member, these signs are not foolproofthat is, the youth may actually not be a gang member or even be a wannabe or gonnabe (at-risk youth). However, the more signs that a youth exhibits increases the likelihood that he or she is headed for gang involvement. The following are some of the warning signs:

  • Experiences a sudden drop in school grades
  • Lacks interest in school and other activities that were once important
  • Becomes truant (skips school)
  • Comes home late
  • Acts more outwardly aggressive or outright defiant
  • Develops a new circle of friends who seem more rough and tough
  • Behaves more secretively and is less forthcoming
  • Changes clothing style; begins wearing some colors exclusively or wears clothes in a unique way consistently (such as rolling up pant legs)
  • Exhibits more antisocial tendencies and becomes withdrawn or uninterested in family activities
  • Suddenly acquires costly material possessions (CDs, DVDs, electronics equipment, etc.) or large amounts of cash, and the source of the funds cannot be explained
  • Starts using a new nickname (or street name)
  • Becomes fascinated with weapons, particularly guns
  • Has new cuts and bruises indicating evidence of being in a fight, and is unable to provide a reasonable explanation
  • Sports new unusual tattoos
  • Writes gang graffiti on notebooks, schoolbooks, and posters
  • Develops an increased interest in gangsta rap music
  • Hides a stash of spray paint, permanent markers, and other graffiti supplies
  • Has encounters with law enforcement
  • Shows dependency on drugs or alcohol

Characteristics of Gang Members

GENDER . An overwhelming majority of gang members are reported by law enforcement agencies to be male; this fact changed little over the NYGS survey years. According to Egley, Howell, and Major in National Youth Gang Survey, 19992001, between 1999 and 2001 an estimated 10% of gang members were female. The larger the population size, the lower the proportion of gang members that are reported to be female; still, in the smallest population areas (fewer than 25,000), only 17% of gang members were female. However, 84% of survey respondents said there were female gang members in their communities. The 2007 National Youth Gang Survey Analysis (http://www.iir.com/nygc/nygsa/demographics.htm) estimated that in 2004 in large cities, female gang membership was just over 5%, but in rural communities, it was around 11%. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the National Gang Threat Assessment 2009 (http://www.fbi.gov/publications/ngta2009.pdf), in 2006 the National Youth Gang Center stated that female gang involvement is underreported by law enforcement.

Though the low estimates of females in gangs are typical findings from law enforcement data, these estimates are challenged by other data. For example, Egley, Howell, and Major state that other studies find that 10% to 20% of all female survey participants in gang-problem areas are gang members. Other researchers who survey gang members themselves find higher proportions of female members. According to the 2009 FBI report, a Florida-based study showed that gang members generally reported that females made up less than 15% of gangs, but some respondents stated the numbers ranged from one-quarter to one-half of all gang members. In May 2008 the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) found that 29.4% of girls and 32.4% of boys in high-risk, high-crime neighborhoods claimed gang membership. Though the numbers generally remain low, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency stated that female gang members are growing rapidly as a part of the national juvenile justice population. The FBI report also states that though female membership in male gangs continues to increase, the number of all female gangs remains low.

Some differences have been found to exist between female and male gang members. Females involved in gangs are believed to join and leave gangs at an earlier age and at a faster rate than males. Female gang members are also believed to be less involved in serious or violent crimes than male gang members. As a result, this lower rate of serious criminal behavior may not bring female gang members to the attention of law enforcement officials. The FBI states that, law enforcement officials are less likely to

recognize or stop female gang members, and they have experienced difficulty in identifying female involvement in gang-related activity.

AGE . Gang members are not always juveniles; in fact, over time law enforcement agencies have reported that a larger percentage of gang members are adults. Egley, Howell, and Major note that in 1996 half of all gang members were reported to be age 18 and older; by 2001 two-thirds (67%) of all gang members were reported to be adults. However, this proportion varies by the size of the community; in the largest cities adults make up a larger proportion of gang members, compared to the smallest population groups, where juveniles predominate. Still, in 2001, 51% of all reporting law enforcement agencies said that half or more of the gang members active in their communities were juveniles.

Gangs have a particular appeal to some youth. Gangs sometimes serve as families for children whose own families may be dysfunctional. Gang members have said there is often little need to intimidate youngsters to recruit them because they know what youth need and are willing to provide it in return for the child's commitment. Gangs provide emotional support, shelter, and clothingin essence, just what the child's family may not be providing. However, some children are intimidated into joining gangs either out of fear or for protection from other gangs.

Egley, Howell, and Major also comment on the age ranges of members of youth gangs by area type where gangs operated in 2001. Large cities and suburban counties with populations of 250,000 or more reported the highest proportions of adult gang members; juveniles made up only about 30% of gang membership in these areas. By contrast, small cities and rural counties with populations less than 25,000 reported the highest proportions of juvenile gang members by far (about 70%).

RACE AND ETHNICITY . According to Egley, Howell, and Major, law enforcement agencies reported in 2001 that approximately half of all gang members were Hispanic, 33% were African-American, 10% were non-Hispanic white, and 5% were Asian-American. Minorities are overrepresented among gang members because gangs arise and persist in economically disadvantaged and socially disorganized areas, and minority communities are overrepresented in these communities. The Bureau of Justice Assistance notes in Addressing Community Gang Problems: A Practical Guide (May 1998, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/164273.pdf) that it is not necessarily race that explains gang life, for gang members usually come from socially and economically disadvantaged communities. In addition, Egley, Howell, and Major explain that 29% of the 2001 NYGS respondents reported that the racial and ethnic groups other than African-American and/or Hispanic are the majority of gang members in their area; in other words, gang membership tends to reflect the demographics of the disadvantaged community from which it arises.

The 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment also notes the connection between recent immigrant communities and gangs. New immigrant communities are often isolated by language barriers and difficulties in finding employment. Gangs are attractive to many in Hispanic immigrant communities because they provide support and protection. By contrast, Asian communities are less likely than other communities to report criminal activity to law enforcement agencies. As a result, gangs often victimize these communities.

Gang Types and Activities

THE SPREADOFGANGS . Several Hispanic gangs originated in California but have since spread throughout the nation. Southern California gang members who moved out of the state united under the name Surenño (or Sur 13). According to the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, in 2001 Sur 13 was present in 35 states across the nation. This group has connections to the Mexican mafia. Norten˜os are gang members who originated in Northern California; they are believed to have an alliance with an outlaw motorcycle gang that allows them to acquire drugs and aids them in defending against Hispanic gangs from Southern California. Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is a El Salvadoran street gang aligned with the Mexican mafia that originated in Los Angeles but spread to Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and New York. The Hispanic gang 18th Street, which is open to individuals of any racial background, reportedly has spread across the country and recruits in elementary and middle schools. The Latin Kings is a powerful gang that has split into three factions; its membership is primarily Puerto Rican males, but it does include individuals of other ethnicities. It is particularly active in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where it engages in drug-related crime and bitter territorial wars with other gangs. Law enforcement officials report that they are seeing an increasing effort of some Hispanic gangs to align with one another to organize a criminal network.

A gang subculture has also emerged on Native American reservations. These gangs are primarily composed of youth. They engage in less criminal behavior than other gangs; according to the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, gang behavior is more about group cohesiveness, predatory activities, and a party atmosphere than it is about organized criminal behavior with a profit motive. Gangs on reservations tend to be small and unaligned with large, national gang networks. Even though violent crime is on the increase, most gang activity on reservations is associated with graffiti, vandalism, and drug sales.

In an effort to learn more about Native American gangs, the NYGC conducted a survey and Aline K. Major et al. reported the findings in Youth Gangs in Indian Country (March 2004, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/202714.pdf). The researchers note that the survey included persons

of American Indian, Alaska Native, or Aleut heritage who reside within the limits of Indian reservations, pueblos, rancherias, villages, dependent Indian communities, or Indian allotments, and who together comprise a federally recognized tribe or community. Major et al. report that youth gangs were active in 23% of Native American communities. Fifty-nine percent of communities reporting active gangs estimated the number of gangs between one and five, 19% estimated the number to be between six and 10, and 6% estimated more than 10. Sixteen percent of the communities with gangs believed the gangs consisted of more than 50 people, 12% estimated 26 to 50 people, and 32% reported 25 or fewer. According to the researchers, about 75% of gang members were juveniles. Females made up 20% of Native American gang members. A mix of both males and females existed in 82% of the gangs. About 10% of gangs on reservations were thought to be female-dominated. Nearly four out of five gang members on reservations were of Native American, Alaskan Native, or Aleut descent. The other 22% were of other ethnic or racial backgrounds, most notably Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites.

Some researchers classify gangs not according to their racial and ethnic makeup, but according to what purposes they serve and their organizational structures. In National Victim Assistance Academy Textbook (June 2002, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/assist/nvaa2002/toc.html), the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime outlines gang research conducted by the sociologist Carl S. Taylor. Taylor categorized gangs into three types: scavenger gangs, which act spontaneously and lack organization, have frequent changes in leadership, tend to have members who are low achievers, and are regarded unfavorably by other types of gangs; territorial gangs, which are highly organized, prone to fighting to establish territories, use formal initiations, and are formed mainly for social reasons; and corporate gangs, which are highly structured, engage in drug trafficking, require members to live by a strict set of rules with harsh punishments for those who break them, and whose members can be considered actual gangsters. Members of corporate gangs tend to be more intelligent than members of scavenger and territorial gangs, but they may lack formal schooling.

Reasons for Joining a Gang

Why juveniles, youths, and even adults participate in gangs is the subject of much study in the United States. Studies include those by James C. Howell of the NYGC, in Youth Gangs: An Overview (August 1998, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/167249.pdf) and in Youth Gang Programs and Strategies (August 2000, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/171154.pdf); and Wyrick and Howell. The reasons vary greatly among gang members, but there are a few basic motives. It is important to note, however, that even though these factors may cause some people to join gangs, they do not prompt most people to do so. Some of the most common reasons to join a gang are:

  • Feeling marginalized by society and seeking a commonality with others in similar situations
  • Wanting power and respect
  • Having friends involved in gangs and wanting to be a part of that too
  • Desiring a sense of belonging when that is not available through a traditional family setting
  • Seeking safety and/or protection from bullies, rival gangs, family members, or others
  • Having power in numbers
  • Ending poverty and joblessness by turning to criminal activities, such as stealing and drug trafficking
  • Needing to feel a sense of purpose
  • Having trouble or a disinterest in school
  • Living in neighborhoods or communities where other troubled youth roam the streets
  • Adding organization and structure to one's life
  • Having feelings of low self-esteem that are diminished through encouragement from other gang members

Karl G. Hill, Christina Lui, and J. David Hawkins tracked juveniles in Seattle, Washington, over the course of several years to learn more about their involvement in gang-related activities. They reported their findings in Early Precursors of Gang Membership: A Study of Seattle Youth (December 2001, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/190106.pdf). During the multiyear study, the researchers tracked a group of 808 fifth-graders through age 18. They learned that 15.3% (124 students) joined a gang between the ages of 13 and 18. Of those joining gangs, 69% stayed in a gang for less than one year, whereas 0.8% of study participants who joined a gang at age 13 were still in a gang at age 18.

According to Hill, Lui, and Hawkins, those children who stayed in a gang for several years were the most behaviorally and socially maladjusted, often exhibiting early signs of violent and externalizing behavior (e.g., aggression, oppositional behavior, and inattentive and hyperactive behaviors). Children who associated with antisocial peers were more than twice as likely to remain in a gang for more than one year. In National Victim Assistance Academy Textbook, the Office for Victims of Crime reports that gangs are starting to recruit younger members, sometimes as young as seven or eight years old.

Hill, Lui, and Hawkins identify various risk factors potentially leading to gang involvement. These factors include having a learning disability, having access to marijuana, experiencing low academic achievement, living near other youth in trouble in the neighborhood, and having a living arrangement that includes one parent along with other unrelated adults.

The presence of street gangs is a growing concern in U.S. schools. Various educators and studentsurban, suburban, and ruralacknowledge the presence of gangs in their schools. Such gangs are often involved in illegal activities, such as violence, drugs, and weapons trafficking. Gang presence in schools often leads to fear among students who are not affiliated with gangs and may encourage nongang members to join a gang for protection. In schools with significant gang presence, the level of violence is frequently higher than in schools with less gang presence.

Rachel Dinkes et al. address in Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2007 (December 2007, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/iscs07.pdf) the issue of student reports of street gangs in schools. Between 2001 and 2005 urban students were the most likely to acknowledge the presence of street gangs at school during the previous six months. By 2005 over a third (36%) of urban students admitted these gangs were present at their schools. (See Figure 8.1.) Suburban students (21%) and rural students (16%) followed. Even though law enforcement officials surveyed in the NYGS stated that gang membership held steady in the first decade of the twenty-first century, an increasing number of students reported gang activity at school. In 2001, 20% of students reported gangs at school, and in 2005, 24% of students reported gangs at school.

According to Dinkes et al., the percentages of students reporting gangs in public schools far eclipsed the number in private schools. In 2005, 25% of students in public schools reported gang activities at their schools, whereas only 4% of private school students did. Students at public schools were more likely to report the presence of gangs than were students at private schools, regardless of the school's location.

In terms of race and ethnicity, Hispanics in urban schools (48%) were the most likely group to acknowledge gangs at school in 2005, whereas white rural students (14%) were the least likely. (See Figure 8.2.) In urban and rural schools, Hispanic students were the most likely and African-American students were the second most likely to report the presence of gangs, whereas in suburban schools African-American students (35%) were the most likely to report the presence of gangs, followed by Hispanic students (32%).

Indicators of Gang Presence at School

In Youth Gangs in Schools (August 2000, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/183015.pdf), James C. Howell

   

and James P. Lynch note that even in elementary and secondary schools, youth gangs can present serious crime problems. They describe various studies that asked surveyed students to explain why they believed gangs were present in their schools. The students' responses included:

  • The gang has a recognized name (80%)
  • The surveyed student has spent time with gang members (80%)
  • The gang members wear clothing or other items identifying their group (71%)
  • The gang marks or tags its territory with graffiti (56%)
  • The gang commits acts of violence (50%)
  • The gang has a recognized territory (47%)
  • The gang members have tattoos (37%)
  • The gang members have a recognized leader (33%)

Gangs and Drugs at School

Howell and Lynch comment on the connection between drug availability and gang presence at school. They note, Where none of the drugs was easy to get, only 25 percent of surveyed students said gangs were present. This percentage increased from 42 percent when only one drug was readily available to 69 percent when seven drugs were readily available, and then dropped slightly when eight or nine drugs were readily available. When eight and nine drugs were available at school, the percentage of students reporting gangs increased to 63% and 62%, respectively. It is unclear whether the availability of drugs was because of the gang activity, or if the presence of gangs was part of an underlying problem that contributed to the availability of drugs. Dinkes et al. note that the availability of drugs on school property has a disruptive and corrupting influence on the school environment. They also indicate that 25% of high school students reported that drugs were available to them on school property.

Gang Criminality at School

Howell and Lynch include survey respondents' impressions about the presence of gangs in school and its relationship to crime. According to the researchers, The students reported that most of the gangs they see at school are actively involved in criminal activities. About two-thirds of the students reported that gangs are involved in none or

only one of three types of criminal acts: violence, drug sales, or carrying guns. Nevertheless, students said that a small proportion of gangs in schools (8 percent) are involved in all three types of crimes, and these gangs are probably responsible for the most disruption and violent victimization in and around schools. The researchers indicate that other studies include a variety of other criminal activities known to be perpetrated by gang members.

Howell and Lynch also state that gangs contribute substantially to victimizations at school. It is believed that some students join gangs to avoid persecution by gang members. For them, gang membership serves as a form of protection from other students who may have threatened them or wished them harm.

GANG CRIME AND VIOLENCE

In The Impact of Gang Formation on Local Patterns of Crime (Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, vol. 44, no. 2, May 2007), George Tita and Greg Ridgeway acknowledge that gang members commit more crimes and more serious crimes than do nongang members, but they also examine whether the emergence of gangs have an impact on the crime rate. They argue that gangs typically form in areas that have higher crime than other areas, but once gangs form, they attract or generate even higher levels of crime. Tita and Ridgeway state, The formation of gang set space facilitates drug and shots-fired activity at the neighborhood level, just as gang membership facilitates drug-market activities and gun carrying or usage among active gang members. The following is a discussion of gang involvement in specific criminal activities.

Homicides

Egley, Howell, and Major explain that the impact and severity of gang activity in an area is often measured by the numbers of gang-related homicides. The term gang-motivated homicides refers to those murders that further the interests of a gang, whereas gang-related homicides generally refers to murders where a gang member is either a perpetrator or the victim. Most localities use the broader gang memberbased definition, rather than the motive-based definition, when classifying a homicide as gang related.

According to Egley and O'Donnell, there is a clear relationship between population size and gang-related homicides. Nearly nine out of 10 communities (89%) with populations between 2,500 and 49,999 and 86% of rural counties recorded no gang-related homicides in 2006. However, most law enforcement agencies in communities with a population of over 100,000 people reported at least one gang-related homicide in that year.

Some evidence suggests that even though the number of active gangs and gang membership is holding steady, gang violence is getting worse. According to Arlen Egley Jr. and Christina E. Ritz of the NYGS, in Highlights of the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey (April 2006, http://www.iir.com/nygc/publications/fs200601.pdf), two cities, Los Angeles and Chicago, reported in 2004 that more than half of the homicides in those cities were considered gang related, whereas the remaining 171 cities that responded to the survey considered approximately a quarter of all homicides to be gang related. The number of gang homicides in these cities in 2004 was 11% higher than the annual average of gang-related homicides over the past eight years. In Homicide Trends in the United States (July 11, 2007, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/homicide/circumst.htm), James Alan Fox and Marianne W. Zawitz state that between 1976 and 2005 gang-related homicides increased eightfold, from 129 in 1976 to 1,119 in 2002, before dropping to 955 in 2005.

The Office for Victims of Crime notes in National Victim Assistance Academy Textbook that youthful gang members have no fear of death and often how they die is what is important in gang dynamics. This factor contributes to retaliatory gang violence and criminal acts that are increasingly violent in nature.

Drug Trafficking and Other Crime

Gangs use drug trafficking as a major source of financial gain. According to the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, 31.6% of all law enforcement respondents to the NYGS reported that gangs in their communities were highly involved in selling drugs. Law enforcement agencies believed this was especially true in the distribution of marijuana (64.8%), followed by crack cocaine (47.3%), methamphetamine (39.1%), powdered cocaine (38.2%), heroin (27.9%), and MDMA (23.7%). Gangs in the West and the Northeast are more likely to be involved in selling drugs than are gangs in the South and the Midwest.

Egley and O'Donnell find that gang-related crime had increased in a significant portion of locales across the United States in 2006. Specifically, more than half the law enforcement agencies surveyed reported an increase in gang-related aggravated assault and drug sales, 45% reported an increase in robbery, 39% reported an increase in larceny/theft, 37% reported an increase in burglary, and 30% reported an increase in auto theft. (See Figure 8.3.)

The 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment also reports that gangs are thought to be increasingly associating themselves with organized crime groups, such as Mexican drug organizations and Asian and Russian organized crime. Imprisoning gang members is thought to do little to curb their activities, and the return of previously imprisoned gang members to communities is believed to intensify criminal activity, drug trafficking, and violence in those communities. In addition, California-style gangs have been found throughout the United States. Furthermore, gang members are becoming increasingly able to use technology and computers to engage in criminal activity.

 

C. Ronald Huff of Ohio State University conducted a study on gang involvement in crime and reported his findings in Criminal Behavior of Youth Gangs and At-Risk Youths (March 1998, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/fs000190.pdf). Huff interviewed 50 gang members in four communities: Aurora and Denver, Colorado; Broward County, Florida; and Cleveland, Ohio. As a control, he also interviewed 50 youths from each area who represented the at-risk population but who were not gang members. The results of the interviews indicate that besides being more involved in crime, gang members are also much more likely than nongang members to own guns.

In the study communities, Huff finds that more than 90% of gang members stated that their peers had carried concealed weapons and another 80% admitted that gang members had taken guns to school. About half of the control-group members had friends who had carried a concealed weapon, and one-third acknowledged that friends had taken guns to school. Fox and Zawitz note that the percentage of homicides involving guns was higher among gang-related crimes than in other circumstances, in fact, approaching 100%.

According to the Office for Victims of Crime, in National Victim Assistance Academy Textbook, when it comes to crime and punishment, gang members have learned to work the system: Experience shows that incapacitation of individual gang members is not sufficient to control gang crime because removing individuals does not diminish the influence of the gang on the street. In addition, gangs have learned the procedural differences between juvenile and adult court and have used these to their advantage. Since gangs consist of both juvenile and adult members, many gangs have come to use juveniles extensively in the commission of crimes. This ensures lenient penalties for adjudicated juvenile offenders.

CONSEQUENCES OF BEING IN A GANG

Being in a gang can be dangerous. Former members can tell many stories about the difficulties one encounters in gang life. Besides living a life with the potential for more violence and crime than the average youth would experience, many other consequences exist. Even though such consequences might vary considerably among individuals, Dana Peterson, Terrance J. Taylor, and Finn-Aage Esbensen, in Gang Membership and Violent Victimization (Justice Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 4, December 2004), and Thornberry, Huizinga, and Leober address some of the most commonly encountered consequences:

  • Becoming a school dropout
  • Having little opportunity to secure a good, legal job
  • Being unable to hold a steady job
  • Becoming antisocial and having difficulty socializing outside the gang
  • Having an increased likelihood of being a victim of violent crime
  • Entering motherhood or fatherhood at an early age
  • Ending up in prison or jail for gang crimes
  • Developing a dependency on drugs and/or alcohol
  • Experiencing a higher risk of premature death

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Violence and Gangs." Growing Up: Issues Affecting America's Youth. 2009. Encyclopedia.com. 31 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Violence and Gangs." Growing Up: Issues Affecting America's Youth. 2009. Encyclopedia.com. (May 31, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-1335600014.html

"Violence and Gangs." Growing Up: Issues Affecting America's Youth. 2009. Retrieved May 31, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-1335600014.html

Violence and Gangs

Chapter 8
Violence and Gangs

SCOPE OF THE GANG PROBLEM

Gangs have a long history in the United States, dating back to the 1800s. As the United States became the "great melting pot" in the nineteenth century when people of diverse ethnicities and religions entered the country, some immigrants joined gangs to help them gain a group identity, defend themselves against other groups, and establish a unified presence. Although people feared street gangs of the nineteenth century, the gangs of today pose a greater threat to public safety than in years past.

Most criminal activities of the street gangs of the early twentieth century involved delinquent acts or petty crimes, such as brawls with rival gangs. As the twentieth century progressed, however, gangs became involved in more serious crimes. Toward the end of the century law enforcement officials came to regard gang members in general as serious criminals who used intimidation tactics, engaged in the illegal trafficking of drugs and weapons, and employed violence to pursue their goals. Respondents in the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS) emphasized that a gang was defined by involvement in group criminal activity along with some degree of definition of a group as a separate entity, such as having a name, displaying distinct colors or symbols, or engaging in activities to protect the group's territory. Law enforcement officers noted that in the 1980s and 1990s more and more gang members began to support themselves through dealing drugs, such as crack cocaine and heroin. Many were said to have easy access to high-powered weapons. In addition, the proliferation of gangs in the late twentieth century meant that groups moved beyond city boundaries into suburban and rural areas as well. This movement into new territories occurred about the same time that youth violence surged in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Researchers noted various reasons for the growth of gangs during the end of the twentieth century. According to Preventing Adolescent Gang Involvement (September 2000, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/182210.pdf), Finn-Aage Esbensen of the University of Nebraska at Omaha notes that "American society witnessed a reemergence of youth gang activity and media interest in this phenomenon in the 1980's and 1990's. 'Colors,' 'Boyz in the Hood,' other Hollywood productions, and MTV brought Los Angeles gang life to suburban and rural America." These media portrayals might further entice youth to become involved in gangs.

In an effort to track the growth and activities of gangs, the National Youth Gang Center of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) began conducting the NYGS in 1996. According to the National Youth Gang Survey Analysis (2006, http://www.iir.com/nygc/nygsa/methodology.htm), the National Youth Gang Center indicates that for purposes of the survey, researchers annually query all police and sheriff departments serving cities and counties with populations of fifty thousand or more (twenty-five thousand or more before 2002), as well as all suburban county police and sheriff's departments. Because gang membership has moved beyond large metropolitan areas, the NYGS also queries a random sample of law enforcement agencies in cities with populations between twenty-five hundred and twenty-five thousand and in rural counties. Not all jurisdictions that receive the survey respond, but a solid majority do. Survey participants are instructed to provide information on youth gangs within their jurisdictions. Motorcycle gangs, prison gangs, adult gangs, and hate or ideology-based groups are not included in the sample.

Statistics about gang membership show that the increased concern about gangs had its basis in the growth of gangs during the 1990s. According to Walter B. Miller of the OJJDP, in The Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States: 1970–1998 (April 2001, http://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/ojjdprpt_yth_gng_prob_2001/contents.html), during the 1970s about 1% of U.S. cities and about 40% of the states reported having problems with youth gangs. By the late 1990s the percentage of U.S. cities with gang problems grew to 7%, and youth gangs were reported in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Gang growth in cities soared in the 1980s and 1990s, with the number of gangs reportedly increasing by 281%. During the period from 1995 to 1998 gang activity was recorded in 1,550 cities and 450 counties where it had not been reported previously. In the 1998 National Youth Gang Survey (November 2000, http://www.gangsorus.com/survey.pdf), the OJJDP reports that in 1998 the West had the highest percentage of law enforcement agencies reporting active youth gangs, especially in the Pacific region.

At first, gangs tended to be big-city problems—the NYGS noted that most cities with populations over one hundred thousand reported that the proliferation of gangs became a problem between 1985 and the early 1990s. After that time, however, gangs spread to smaller areas. It is true that the larger the population, the greater the likelihood of the existence of gangs in that area. However, gangs can also be found in small towns, villages, and rural areas, some of which do not even have their own police departments.

The huge growth in gangs and gang membership slowed in the late 1990s. Comparing statistics between the 1996 and 2000 surveys, Arlen Egley Jr. of the NYGS, in the fact sheet "National Youth Gang Survey Trends from 1996 to 2000" (February 2002, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/fs200203.pdf), finds that "the proportion of respondents that reported youth gangs in their jurisdiction decreased over the survey years, from 53 percent in 1996 to 40 percent in 2000." In the National Youth Gang Survey, 1999–2001 (July 2006, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/209392.pdf), Arlen Egley Jr., James C. Howell, and Aline K. Major of the NYGS estimate that there were approximately 21,500 gangs present in the United States in 2002. (See Figure 8.1.) Most of these (85%) were active in cities, but a substantial number—about six thousand—were present in non-urban counties. Between about 1997 and 2002 there was a general pattern of a reduction in the estimated number of gangs. Much of the decrease in the number of gangs and gang members occurred in jurisdictions with populations between 100,000 and 249,999 people. Egley, Howell, and Major note that all participating jurisdictions with 250,000 or more residents acknowledged having persistent gang activity during each survey year. These larger jurisdictions also experienced a drop in the average number of gang members but not in the average number of gangs.

As Figure 8.2 shows, gang membership generally decreased between 1996 and 2002, from an estimated 846,000 gang members in 1996 to 731,500 gang members in 2002. Gang membership in cities had decreased slightly between 1999 and 2002, from about 600,000 to about 550,000; in counties gang membership had decreased from about 250,000 to 225,000. Egley, Howell, and Major indicate that cities with a population of 25,000 or fewer reported a 43% reduction in gang members between 1998 and 2001, whereas larger cities and suburban counties reported 5% fewer gang members in 2001. Every city with a population of 250,000 or more reported that youth gangs were active in their cities in 2002.

In "Highlights of the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey" (April 2006, http://www.iir.com/nygc/publications/fs200601.pdf), Arlen Egley Jr. and Christina E. Ritz of the NYGS note that by 2004 there were an estimated 24,000 active gangs in the United States. Although this represented an overall decline of 2% from 2000 levels, a higher percentage of cities reported gang problems in the 2002–04 period than they did in the 1999–2001 period, after large declines in the late 1990s. Almost four out of five (79.8%) larger cities (population 50,000 or more), 40% of suburban counties, 28.4% of smaller cities (population 2,500 to 49,999), and 12.3% of rural counties reported gang problems in the 2002–04 period.

According to Egley and Ritz, in 2004 approximately 760,000 gang members were active in the United States. These numbers had held steady for about two years, after declines in the late 1990s. Approximately 85% of the estimated gang members lived in larger cities and suburban counties in 2004.

CHARACTERISTICS OF GANGS

According to the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment (2005, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/what/2005_threat_assesment.pdf), by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations, the modern street gang, or youth gang as it is often called, takes many forms. Individual members, gang cliques, or entire gang organizations engage in trafficking in drugs; operating car theft rings; committing shootings, assaults, robbery, extortion, and other felonies; and terrorizing neighborhoods. Some of the most ambitious gangs spread out from their home jurisdictions to other cities and states. Yet, some of the movement occurs simply because the gang members' families move to other areas, especially during times of economic growth. However, many gang members come from impoverished, immigrant, or transitional neighborhoods, where children are born into or must contend with second- and third-generation street gangs.

David Starbuck, James C. Howell, and Donna J. Lindquist, in Hybrid and Other Modern Gangs (December 2001, http://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/jjbul2001_12_1/contents.html), examine survey data and current research to offer a portrait of the modern youth gang. Various stereotypes exist about gangs. For example, the stereotypical view holds that youth gangs are tightly organized groups made up of African-American or Hispanic inner-city males operating under strict codes of conduct with explicit punishments for infractions of the rules. However, the new hybrid gang can have members from both genders and from different racial groups as well as members having radically opposing viewpoints.

Starbuck, Howell, and Lindquist suggest that a modern gang might be made up of African-Americans, white supremacists, and females. The gangs are found in schools and the military and in territories as small as shopping malls. Rules or codes of conduct may be unclear. Hybrid gangs sometimes borrow the symbols, graffiti, and even the names of established organizations, such as those based in Los Angeles or Chicago (for example, Bloods, Crips, or Latin Kings), but are actually locally based and have no connection to those organizations. Rival gangs may cooperate in criminal activities, and mergers of small gangs are common.

Starbuck, Howell, and Lindquist note that in places where gangs are a fairly recent phenomenon, drug sales and distribution are less likely to be major problems. Gang member involvement in drug sales is most prevalent in areas where gangs emerged between 1981 and 1985, at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. Highly organized, entrepreneurial, gang control of drug distribution across wide areas—and the violent crime that goes with it—are mainly associated with the gangs that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Specific Gang Characteristics

Researchers, law enforcement, and community groups devote time to learning more about gangs and the types of characteristics they share. Much study has gone into gang slang, graffiti, hand signs, colors, and initiations, among other characteristics. The goal is to learn more about how gangs communicate and interact, both internally and externally, as well as test themselves and each other. If educators, law enforcement officials, and other concerned adults know how to recognize signs that young people may be involved in gangs, they will be better able to intervene.

GANG SLANG

Various gang members create their own slang language. Although some terms are used in gangs throughout the country, others are only used regionally and within certain gangs. Various terms originated with the infamous Crips and Bloods of Los Angeles, who have been adversaries for many years. Examples include "banging" (involved in gang activities), "colors" (clothing of a particular color, such as jackets, shoes, or bandanas, worn by gang members to identify themselves as part of the gang), "O.G." ("original gangster," meaning a gang member who has killed someone, or a founding member or leader of a gang), "tagging" (marking a territory with graffiti), and "turf" (territory).

GRAFFITI

Graffiti has been a form of communication since ancient times. Meaning "little scratches" in Italian, graffiti appeared in cave dwellings, Egyptian temples, and on other natural and human-made objects. Today, there are several categories of graffiti; each type is used to get the artists' message out to anyone who can read it. Among the various types are personal musings, political messages, tagging, piecing or bombing, and gang graffiti.

The most common type of graffiti is that of personal musings—thoughts written down quickly in public places, such as restrooms and phone booths. Sometimes humorous, this type of graffiti might be of a sexual context, or might include memorable quotes. Oftentimes, it concerns race relations.

Political graffiti usually appears in places accessible to the general public—on the sides of buildings, freeway overpasses, and so on. The political message is generally against the establishment or authorities and may contain statements regarding labor conditions, civil rights, and religious thought.

Tagging is another type of graffiti. A tag is a signature, or moniker, which may incorporate the artist's physical features or symbolize his or her personality. Tags are found usually on exterior building walls in urban areas. They may also appear on mass transit systems (buses and trains), freeway overpasses, and other areas for all to see and wonder how it got there. Tagging first appeared on the East Coast in the late 1960s, making its way to the West Coast by the 1980s. Taggers feel a sense of power and fame as more and more surfaces contain their tags.

Mural-type graffiti is known as piecing or bombing. The piece usually contains elaborate depictions or a montage of images. Oftentimes, slogans appear within the piece. Whereas tags can be done quickly, piecing may take up to several hours and require many cans of spray paint in many colors.

Gang graffiti employs all the aforementioned types. Gangs use graffiti for many purposes. In some instances it may be a way of communicating messages to other gang members, functioning like a newsletter. Tags or monikers may be used to show a gang's hierarchy. Pieces may memorialize a dead gang member or pay tribute to the crimes committed by gang members. Some pieces may enumerate rules in the gang's society—it is often a means to advertise a gang's presence in the neighborhood. Gang graffiti may also serve as a threatening message to rival gangs—as if to say, "Stay away from our turf."

In today's society all types of graffiti are perceived as vandalism and a public nuisance and are punishable by law in the United States.

HAND SIGNS

Hand signs are a way of communicating concepts or ideas without using words. However, only those individuals who are familiar with the gesture's meaning are able to understand the message being conveyed. The rise of gang hand signs began in the Los Angeles area during the 1950s. Since that time many gangs have developed hand signs for use between members of the group. Gang members "throw" or "flash" hand signs as a way of communicating amongthemselves, sending secretmessages to other members within the group. For example, placing a clenched fist over the heart means "I'll die for you."

In Recognize the Signs (November 2005, http://www.nj.gov/oag/gang-signs-bro.pdf), the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General and the Juvenile Justice Commission explain that each gang usually has a hand sign that symbolizes affiliation with the gang. For example, the Los Angeles Bloods use the B sign (creating a circle with the thumb and index finger, with the other fingers raised) to signify membership in the gang. Crips use a sign that represents the letter C. Although this is a good way for gang members to recognize other members or affiliates, it can be used against them as well. A gang might use gestures created by a rival gang in an act called false flagging. When this occurs, a gang member will flash a rival gang's hand sign as a way to infiltrate the opposing gang or to lure an unsuspecting adversary into a bad situation.

Most gangs recognize many universal hand signals. One such ubiquitous sign dates back to World War II (1939–45)—the sign for "victory," made by raising the index and middle fingers in the shape of a V. Gangs use many universal gestures to intimidate or "dis" (disrespect) rival gangs. A raised fist means "power." Raising the index finger shows that the gang is "number one" and can beat all rivals. Gang hand signs may also appear prominently in gang graffiti.

FLYING THE COLORS

The idea of wearing different colors to identify opposing sides is not new. For example, during wartime opposing armies use different colors to symbolize their cause or protect their territory. Flags, uniforms, and the like were made in the color chosen to represent the nation or army at war. By donning the color of the army, soldiers were easily identified as being on one side or the other—the enemy could be spotted easily. During the American Revolution most of the British forces wore red uniforms; thus, they were called the Redcoats. To distinguish themselves from the British, the American colonists chose blue uniforms.

This is also true of gangs. Recognize the Signs notes that for many years they have used color to distinguish themselves from rival gangs, while protecting their turf. Gang members often show support for the gang by wearing "uniforms." Sporting clothes in the gang's colors, such as bandanas, shoes, jackets, jewelry, and other articles of clothing shows a person's membership in one gang over another. For example, the two largest gangs in the Los Angeles area are the Bloods and the Crips. The Bloods use red; the Crips use blue. The colors are a way to symbolize the gang's unity, power, and pride.

However, "flying the colors" can be a disadvantage to gangs. The 2005 National Gang Threat Assessmentindicates that although colors make it easier for other gangs to identify rival members, they also help law enforcement and school officials recognize gang members. Law enforcement officials have been able to crack down on gang-related criminal activities, rounding up juveniles and youths wearing gang colors. In response to this new threat, many gangs have opted to forego their traditional colors and are developing new methods of identification. Like the modern-day army, gang members are beginning to camouflage themselves from their rivals, making their uniforms less conspicuous. Wearing a hat tilted to the left may show membership in a gang whose rivals are those who wear their pant legs rolled up. Gang members also use hand signs to identify their affiliation to certain groups.

RECRUITMENT AND INITIATION

People tend to organize themselves into groups of like-minded individuals to meet and participate in group-related activities. Groups offer fellowship—a way to bond with others who share similar interests or goals. For today's youth, scouting, athletics, or debate clubs offer ways for kids to meet new friends and participate in various group activities, such as camping, learning crafts, and so on. The group organizers recruit members by offering experiences that a boy or girl might not have unless they are members of the group.

Although their activities are often criminal and their recruitment tactics highly aggressive, gangs operate in a similar fashion. Gang recruiters offer prospective members a chance to be a part of something—to gain a sense of belonging that might be lacking in their life. Through the use of graffiti, the wearing of colors or tattoos, or intimidation tactics, the gang recruits new members to increase its power. In turn, some juveniles see this power in the schools or on the sides of buildings and may feel pressured into joining a gang. In some instances gang members threaten the child or members of his or her family into joining, offering protection from bullies or rival gangs. Others might be eager to join a gang because they think it is cool and exciting to be part of a clique that engages in criminal activity.

In response to gang recruitment activities, some states and localities have changed their laws to make any kind of gang recruitment, even if it does not involve criminal behavior, illegal. For example, in 2007 the state of Illinois proposed to amend the criminal code by making street gang recruitment on school grounds or public property a felony, even if it did not involve the use or threat of physical force. In April 2004 Senator Charles Schumer of New York proposed a new law, the Criminal Street Gang Abatement Act, that would make gang recruitment punishable by up to ten years in jail.

As is common in some social clubs, many prospective gang inductees must undergo an initiation to show the members that they are worthy enough to be accepted into the group. "Jumping in" or "clicking in" to a gang usually involves some type of criminal activity for the inductee to perform. This may include stealing or damaging property, assaulting someone, or carrying and selling drugs. More radical forms of gang initiations may involve drive-by shootings or rape. In some instances the inductee is "beat-down" by gang members using baseball bats or brass knuckles. In rare instances a new member may be "blessed in"—not having to prove his or her worth—because a brother or sister is already a member of the gang. Some have difficulty trying to leave a gang. In these cases the youth might be pressured to remain in the clique or might be hesitant to leave because his or her friends and family (including parents) are in the gang.

Studies show that in many cases the modern adolescent may refuse to join a gang or leave it without fear of reprisal, even though gangs try to maintain the illusion that leaving is impossible. Terence P. Thornberry, David Huizinga, and Rolf Leober report in "The Causes and Correlates Studies: Findings and Policy Implications" (Juvenile Justice, September 2004) that this was borne out by OJJDP-supported longitudinal studies in Denver, Colorado (1988–99) and Rochester, New York (1986–97), as well as by the Seattle Social Development Project in Washington (1985–2001), all of which show that more than half (54% to 69%) of youths who joined gangs in those cities remained for one year or less, whereas only 9% to 21% stayed for three or more years. However, Egley, Howell, and Major find that gang membership appears to be getting older, which indicates that youth living in highly disadvantaged areas, where there is an absence of economic opportunity, may remain in gangs to later ages.

INDICATORS OF GANG INVOLVEMENT

Groups and researchers, such as the California Attorney General's Office, Crime and Violence Prevention Center, in Gangs: A Community Response (June 2003, http://safestate.org/shop/files/Gangs_Comm.resp.pdf), and Phelan A. Wyrick and James C. Howell, in "Strategic Risk-Based Response to Youth Gangs" (Juvenile Justice, September 2004), compile lists to aid parents, siblings, educators, and others in looking for signs that a youth has joined a gang. Even though a youth may present several warning signs that might indicate he or she is a gang member, these signs are not foolproof—that is, the youth may actually not be a gang member or even be a "wannabe" or "gonnabe" (at-risk youth). However, the more signs that a youth exhibits increases the likelihood that he or she is headed for gang involvement. The following are a few of the warning signs:

  • Experiences sudden drop in school grades
  • Lacks interest in school and other activities that were once important
  • Becomes truant (skips school)
  • Comes home late
  • Acts more outwardly aggressive or outright defiant
  • Develops a new circle of friends who seem more rough and tough
  • Behaves more secretively and is less forthcoming
  • Changes clothing style; begins wearing some colors exclusively or wears clothes in a unique way consistently (such as rolling up pant legs)
  • Exhibits more antisocial tendencies; becomes withdrawn or uninterested in family activities
  • Suddenly acquires costly material possessions (CDs, DVDs, electronics equipment, etc.) or large amounts of cash, and the source of the funds cannot be explained
  • Starts using a new nickname (or street name)
  • Becomes fascinated with weapons, particularly guns
  • Has new cuts and bruises, indicating evidence of being in a fight, and is unable to provide a reasonable explanation
  • Sports new unusual tattoos
  • Writes gang graffiti on notebooks, schoolbooks, and posters
  • Develops increased interest in gangsta rap music
  • Hides stash of spray paint, permanent markers, and other graffiti supplies
  • Has encounters with law enforcement
  • Shows dependency on drugs or alcohol

Characteristics of Gang Members

GENDER

An overwhelming majority of gang members are reported by law enforcement agencies to be male; this fact changed little over the NYGS survey years. According to Egley, Howell, and Major, an estimated 10% of gang members are female. The larger the population size, the lower the proportion of gang members that are reported to be female; still, in the smallest population areas (fewer than twenty-five thousand), only 17% of gang members are female. However, 84% of survey respondents said that there were female gang members in their communities.

Other researchers who survey gang members themselves find higher proportions of female members. For example, Finn-Aage Esbensen and L. Thomas Winfree report in "Race and Gender Differences between Gang and Nongang Youths: Results from a Multisite Survey" (Justice Quarterly, September 1998) that 38% of self-identified middle-school gang members were female. Egley, Howell, and Major state that other studies find that 10% to 20% of all female survey participants in gang-problem areas are gang members. Some differences have been found to exist, however, between female and male gang members. Females involved in gangs are believed to join and leave gangs at an earlier age and at a faster rate than males. Female gang members are also believed to be not as involved in serious or violent crimes as are male gang members. As a result, this lower rate of serious criminal behavior may not bring female gang members to the attention of law enforcement officials.

AGE

Gang members are not always juveniles; in fact, over time law enforcement agencies have reported that a larger percentage of gang members are adults. In 1996 half of all gang members were reported to be age eighteen or older; by 2001 two-thirds (67%) of all gang members were reported to be adults. (See Figure 8.3.) However, Egley, Howell, and Major note that this proportion varies by the size of the community; in the largest cities adults make up a larger proportion of gang members, compared with the smallest population groups, where juveniles predominate. Still, in 2001, 51% of all reporting law enforcement agencies said that half or more of the gang members active in their communities were juveniles.

Gangs have a particular appeal to some youth. Gangs sometimes serve as families for children whose own families may be dysfunctional. Gang members say there is often little need to intimidate youngsters to recruit them because they know what youth need and are willing to provide it in return for the child's commitment. Gangs provide emotional support, shelter, and clothing—in essence, just what the child's family may not be providing. However, some children are intimidated into joining gangs either out of fear or for protection from other gangs.

Egley, Howell, and Major also comment on the age ranges of members of youth gangs by area type where gangs operated in 2001. Large cities and suburban counties with populations of 250,000 or more reported the highest proportions of adult gang members; juveniles made up only about 30% of gang membership in these areas. By contrast, small cities and rural counties with populations less than 25,000 reported the highest proportions of juveniles by far (about 70%).

RACE AND ETHNICITY

According to Egley, Howell, and Major, law enforcement agencies reported in 2001 that approximately half of all gang members were Hispanic, whereas about one-third were African-American and one out of ten gang members was non-Hispanic white. Another 5% were Asian. Minorities are overrepresented among gang members because gangs arise and persist in economically disadvantaged and socially disorganized areas, and minority communities are overrepresented in these communities. As the Bureau of Justice Assistance notes, "It is not necessarily race that explains gang life, for gang members usually come from socially and economically disadvantaged communities." In addition, Egley, Howell, and Major explain that 29% of the 2001 NYGS respondents reported that the racial/ethnic groups other than African-American and/or Hispanic are the majority of gang members in their area; in other words, gang membership tends to reflect the demographics of the disadvantaged community from which it arises.

The 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment also notes the connection between recent immigrant communities and gangs. New immigrant communities are often isolated by language barriers and difficulties in finding employment. Gangs are attractive to many in Hispanic immigrant communities because they provide support and protection. By contrast, Asian communities are less likely than other communities to report criminal activity to law enforcement agencies. As a result, gangs often victimize these communities.

Gang Types and Activities

The 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment indicates that gangs remain the primary drug traffickers in the United States. In addition, gangs are thought to be increasingly associating themselves with organized crime groups, such as Mexican drug organizations and Asian and Russian organized crime. Imprisoning gang members is thought to do little to curb their activities, and the return of previously imprisoned gang members to communities is believed to intensify criminal activity, drug trafficking, and violence in those communities. In addition, California-style gangs have been found throughout the United States. Furthermore, gang members are becoming increasingly able to use technology and computers to engage in criminal activity.

Several Hispanic gangs originated in California but have since spread throughout the nation. Southern California gang members who moved out of the state united under the name Sureño (or Sur 13). According to the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, in 2001 Sur 13 was present in thirty-five states across the nation. This group has connections to the Mexican mafia. Norteños are gang members who originated in Northern California; they are believed to have an alliance with an outlaw motorcycle gang that allows them to acquire drugs and aids them in defending against Hispanic gangs from Southern California. Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is an El Salvadoran street gang aligned with the Mexican mafia that originated in Los Angeles but spread to Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and New York. The Hispanic gang 18th Street is open to individuals of any racial background that reportedly has spread across the country and recruits in elementary and middle schools. The Latin Kings is a powerful gang that has split into three primary factions; its membership is primarily Puerto Rican males, but it does include individuals of other ethnicities. It is particularly active in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where it engages in drug-related crime and bitter wars with other gangs over territory. Law enforcement officials report that they are seeing an increasing effort of some Hispanic gangs to align with one another to organize a criminal network.

A gang subculture has also emerged on Native American reservations. These gangs are primarily composed of youth. They engage in less criminal behavior than other gangs; according to the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, "gang behavior is more about group cohesiveness, predatory activities, and a party atmosphere than it is about organized criminal behavior with a profit motive." Gangs on reservations tend to be small and unaligned with large, national gang networks. Even though violent crime is on the increase, most gang activity on reservations is associated with graffiti, vandalism, and drug sales.

In an effort to learn more about Native American gangs, the National Youth Gang Center conducted a survey, and Aline K. Major et al. reported the findings in "Youth Gangs in Indian Country" (Juvenile Justice Bulletin, March 2004). Major et al. note that the survey included "persons of American Indian, Alaska Native, or Aleut heritage who reside within the limits of Indian reservations, pueblos, rancherias, villages, dependent Indian communities, or Indian allotments, and who together comprise a federally recognized tribe or community." Major et al. report that youth gangs were active in 23% of Indian communities. Fifty-nine percent of communities reporting active gangs estimated the number of gangs between one and five, 19% estimated the number to be between six and ten, and 6% estimated more than ten. Sixteen percent of the communities with gangs believed the gangs consisted of more than fifty people, 12% estimated twenty-six to fifty people, and 32% reported twenty-five or fewer. According to Major et al., about 75% of gang members were juveniles. Females made up 20% of Indian country gang members. A mix of both males and females existed in 82% of the gangs. About 10% of gangs on reservations were thought to be female-dominated. Nearly four out of five gang members on reservations were of Native American, Alaskan Native, or Aleut descent. The other 22% were of other ethnic or racial backgrounds, most notably Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites.

Some researchers classify gangs not according to their racial/ethnic makeup but according to what purposes they serve and their organizational structures. The National Victim Assistance Academy Textbook (June 2002, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/assist/nvaa2002/toc.html) by the Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime, outlines gang research conducted by the sociologist Carl S. Taylor. Taylor categorized gangs into three types: scavenger gangs, which act spontaneously and lack organization, have frequent changes in leadership, tend to have members who are low achievers, and are regarded unfavorably by other types of gangs; territorial gangs, which are highly organized, prone to fighting to establish turfs, who use formal initiations, and are formed mainly for social reasons; and corporate gangs, which are highly structured, engage in drug trafficking, require members to live by a strict set of rules with harsh punishments for those who break them, and whose members can be considered actual "gangsters." Members of corporate gangs tend to be more intelligent than members of scavenger and territorial gangs, but they may lack formal schooling.

Reasons for Joining a Gang

Why juveniles, youths, and even adults participate in gangs is the subject of much study in the United States. Studies include those by James C. Howell of the NYGC, in Youth Gangs: An Overview (August 1998, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/167249.pdf) and in Youth Gang Programs and Strategies (August 2000, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/171154.pdf); and Wyrick and Howell (see above). Although the reasons vary greatly among gang members, there are a few basic motives. It is important to note, however, that even though these factors may cause some people to join gangs, they do not prompt most people to do so. Some of the most common reasons to join a gang are:

  • Feeling marginalized by society and seeking a commonality with others in similar situations
  • Wanting power and respect
  • Having friends involved in gangs
  • Desiring a sense of belonging when it is not available through a traditional family setting
  • Seeking safety and/or protection from bullies, rival gangs, family members, or others
  • Having power in numbers
  • Ending poverty and joblessness by turning to criminal activities, such as stealing and drug trafficking
  • Needing to feel a sense of purpose
  • Having trouble or a disinterest in school
  • Living in neighborhoods or communities where other troubled youth roam the streets
  • Adding organization and structure to one's life
  • Having feelings of low self-esteem that are diminished through encouragement from other gang members

Karl G. Hill, Christina Lui, and J. David Hawkins tracked juveniles in Seattle, Washington, over the course of several years to learn more about their involvement in gang-related activities. They reported their findings in "Early Precursors of Gang Membership: A Study of Seattle Youth" (Juvenile Justice Bulletin, December 2001). During the multiyear study, Hill, Lui, and Hawkins tracked a group of 808 fifth-graders through age eighteen. They learned that 15.3% (124 students) joined a gang between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. Of those joining gangs, 69% stayed in a gang for less than one year, whereas 0.8% of study participants who joined a gang at age thirteen were still in a gang at age eighteen.

According to Hill, Lui, and Hawkins, those children who stayed in a gang for several years "were the most behaviorally and socially maladjusted," often exhibiting "early signs of violent and externalizing behavior (e.g., aggression, oppositional behavior, and inattentive and hyperactive behaviors)." Children who associated with antisocial peers were more than twice as likely to remain in a gang for more than one year. The National Victim Assistance Academy Textbook reports that gangs are starting to recruit younger members, sometimes as young as seven or eight years old.

Hill, Lui, and Hawkins identify various risk factors potentially leading to gang involvement. These include having a learning disability, access to marijuana, low academic achievement, other youth in trouble living in the neighborhood, and a living arrangement that includes one parent along with other unrelated adults.

GANGS IN SCHOOLS

The presence of street gangs is a growing concern in U.S. schools. Various educators and students—urban, suburban, and rural—acknowledge the presence of gangs in their schools. Such gangs are often involved in illegal activities, such as violence, drugs, and weapons trafficking. Gang presence in schools often leads to fear among students who are not affiliated with a gang and may encourage nongang members to join one to gain protection. In schools with significant gang presence, the level of violence is frequently higher than in schools with less gang presence.

Rachel Dinkes et al., in Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2006 (December 2006, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/iscs06.pdf), address the issue of street gangs on school campuses. In 2005, 36% of urban students were most likely to acknowledge the presence of street gangs at school during the previous six months. (See Figure 8.4.) Suburban students (21%)and rural students (16%)followed. Even though law enforcement officials surveyed in the NYGS stated that gang membership held steady in the early 2000s, an increasing number of students reported gang activity at school; in 2001, 20% of students reported gangs at school, whereas in 2005, 24% of students reported gangs at school. This increase was apparent in urban schools (29% in 2001 versus 36% in 2005), suburban schools (18% in 2001 versus 21% in 2005), and in rural schools (13% in 2001 versus 16% in 2005).

According to Dinkes et al., the percentages of students reporting gangs in public schools far eclipsed the number in private schools. In 2005 a quarter (25%) of students in public schools reported gang activities at their schools, whereas only 4% of private school students did. Students at public schools were more likely to report the presence of gangs than were students at private schools, regardless of the school's location.

In terms of race and ethnicity, Hispanics in urban schools (48%) were the most likely group to acknowledge gangs at school, whereas white rural students (14%) were the least likely. (See Figure 8.5.) Hispanic students were the most likely to report the presence of gangs at school and African-American students were the second most likely in urban areas and rural areas, whereas African-American students were the most likely to report the presence of gangs at suburban schools (35%), followed by Hispanic students (32%).

Indicators of Gang Presence at School

In "Youth Gangs in Schools" (Juvenile Justice Bulletin, August 2000), James C. Howell and James P. Lynch note that even in elementary and secondary schools, youth gangs can present serious crime problems. They describe various studies that asked surveyed students to explain why they believed gangs were present in their schools. The students' responses included:

  • The gang has a recognized name (80%).
  • The surveyed student has spent time with gang members (80%).
  • The gang members wear clothing or other items identifying their group (71%).
  • The gang marks or tags its turf with graffiti (56%).
  • The gang committed acts of violence (50%).
  • The gang has a recognized territory/turf (47%).
  • The gang members have tattoos (37%).
  • The gang members have a recognized leader (33%).

Gangs and Drugs at School

Howell and Lynch comment on the connection between drug availability and gang presence at school. They note, "Where none of the drugs was easy to get, only 25 percent of surveyed students said gangs were present. This percentage increased from 42 percent when only one drug was readily available to 69 percent when seven drugs were readily available, and then dropped slightly when eight or nine drugs were readily available." When eight and nine drugs were available at school, the percentage of students reporting gangs increased to 63% and 62%, respectively. It is unclear whether the availability of drugs was because of the gang activity, or if the presence of gangs was part of an underlying problem that contributed to the availability of drugs as well. As Dinkes et al. note, "The availability of drugs on school property has a disruptive and corrupting influence on the school environment." They also report that 25% of high school students reported that drugs were available to them on school property.

Gang Criminality at School

Howell and Lynch report survey respondents' impressions about the presence of gangs in school and its relationship to crime. According to Howell and Lynch, "The students reported that most of the gangs they see at school are actively involved in criminal activities. About two-thirds of the students reported that gangs are involved in none or only one of three types of criminal acts: violence, drug sales, or carrying guns. Nevertheless, students said that a small proportion of gangs in schools (8 percent) are involved in all three types of crimes, and these gangs are probably responsible for the most disruption and violent victimization in and around schools." Howell and Lynch indicate that other studies include a variety of other criminal activities known to be perpetrated by gang members.

Howell and Lynch also stated that gangs contribute substantially to victimizations at school. It is believed that some students join gangs to avoid persecution by gang members. For them, gang membership serves as a form of protection from other students who may have threatened them or wished them harm.

GANG CRIME AND VIOLENCE

Homicides

Egley, Howell, and Major explain that the impact and severity of gang activity in an area is often measured by the numbers of gang-related homicides. The term gang-motivated homicides refers to those murders that further the interests of a gang, whereas gang-related homicides generally refers to murders where a gang member is either a perpetrator or the victim. Most localities use the broader gang member-based definition, rather than the motive-based definition, when classifying a homicide as gang related.

According to Egley, Howell, and Major, there is a clear relationship between population size and gang-related homicides. More than 90% of law enforcement agencies serving communities of less than twenty-five thousand reported no gang-related homicides between 1999 and 2001, as did 74% of law enforcement agencies serving communities of twenty-five thousand to fifty thousand people. Of law enforcement agencies in these smaller communities that did report gang-related homicides, most had no more than two. Slightly more than half (51%) of law enforcement agencies in communities of fifty thousand to one hundred thousand people reported no gang-related homicides, and another third of agencies in these communities reported no more than two.

Most gang-related homicides are concentrated in large cities. Egley, Howell, and Major note that in cities with a population of one hundred thousand or more, 78% reported gang-related homicides. At the same time, fully a quarter of these cities reported ten or more gang-related homicides between 1999 and 2001.

Some evidence suggests that even though the number of active gangs and gang membership is holding steady or declining, gang violence is getting worse. Egley and Ritz indicate that two cities, Los Angeles and Chicago, reported that more than half of the homicides in those cities were considered gang related, whereas the remaining 171 cities that responded to the survey considered approximately a quarter of all homicides to be gang related. The number of gang homicides in these cities in 2004 was 11% higher than the annual average of gang-related homicides over the past eight years.

In Homicide Trends in the United States (June 29, 2006, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/htius.pdf), James Alan Fox and Marianne W. Zawitz note that between 1976 and 2004 gang-related homicides increased eightfold, from 129 in 1976 to 1,025 in 2004 (down from a high of 1,362, in 1993). Homicides were far more likely to be gang related in large cities (69.5%), followed by suburban areas (16.7%), small cities (13%), and rural areas (0.7%).

The National Victim Assistance Academy Textbook notes that "youthful gang members have 'no fear of death' and often how they die is what is important in gang dynamics. This factor contributes to retaliatory gang violence and criminal acts that are increasingly violent in nature."

Drug Trafficking and Other Crime

Gangs use drug trafficking as a major source of financial gain. According to the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, 31.6% of all law enforcement respondents to the NYGS reported that gangs in their communities were highly involved in selling drugs in their communities. Law enforcement agencies believed this was especially true in the distribution of marijuana (64.8%), followed by crack cocaine (47.3%), methamphetamine (39.1%), powdered cocaine (38.2%), heroin (27.9%), and MDMA (23.7%). Gangs in the West and the Northeast are believed to be more likely to be involved in selling drugs than are gangs in the South and the Midwest.

Most law enforcement agencies do not keep detailed statistics about gang involvement in other types of crime. As a result, C. Ronald Huff of Ohio State University conducted a study on gang involvement in crime and reported his findings in Criminal Behavior of Youth Gangs and At-Risk Youths (March 1998, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/fs000190.pdf). Huff interviewed fifty gang members in four communities: Aurora and Denver, Colorado; Broward County, Florida; and Cleveland, Ohio. As a control, Huff also interviewed fifty youths from each area who represented the at-risk population but who were not gang members. The results of the one-time, confidential interviews indicated that gang members were significantly more involved in crime than nonmembers.

Huff notes that 58.3% of Colorado and Florida gang members and 44.7% of Cleveland gang members acknowledged that they had personally stolen cars. The control group youths self-reported a much lower car theft rate. In Colorado and Florida that rate was 12.5%, and in Cleveland it was 4.1%. Huff also asked about drive-by shootings. He reports that 40% of Cleveland gang members claimed to have participated in a drive-by, compared with 2% of those in the control group. Among Colorado and Florida gang members, 64.2% acknowledged that members of their gangs had committed homicide. That number was far less among control-group members, 6.5% of whom reported that their friends had killed someone.

Huff indicates that gang members were much more likely than nonmembers to own guns. In the study communities, more than 90% of gang members stated that their peers had carried concealed weapons, and another 80% admitted that members had taken guns to school. About half of the control-group members had friends who had carried a concealed weapon, whereas one-third acknowledged that friends had taken guns to school.

According to the National Victim Assistance Academy Textbook, when it comes to crime and punishment, gang members have learned to "work the system": "Experience shows that incapacitation of individual gang members is not sufficient to control gang crime because removing individuals does not diminish the influence of the gang on the street. In addition, gangs have learned the procedural differences between juvenile and adult court and have used these to their advantage. Since gangs consist of both juvenile and adult members, many gangs have come to use juveniles extensively in the commission of crimes. This ensures lenient penalties for adjudicated juvenile offenders."

CONSEQUENCES OF BEING IN A GANG

Being in a gang can be dangerous. Former members can tell many stories about the difficulties one encounters in gang life. Besides living a life with the potential for more violence and crime than the average youth would experience, many other consequences exist. Although such consequences might vary considerably among individuals, Terence P. Thornberry, David Huizinga, and Rolf Leober, in "The Causes and Correlates Studies: Findings and Policy Implications" (Juvenile Justice, September 2004), and Dana Peterson, Terrance J. Taylor, and Finn-Aage Esbensen, in "Gang Membership and Violent Victimization" (Justice Quarterly, December 2004), address some of the most commonly encountered consequences:

  • Becoming a school dropout
  • Having little opportunity to secure a good, legal job
  • Being unable to hold a steady job
  • Becoming antisocial; having difficulty socializing outside the gang
  • Having an increased likelihood of being a victim of violent crime
  • Entering motherhood or fatherhood at an early age
  • Ending up in prison or jail for gang crimes
  • Developing a dependency on drugs and/or alcohol
  • Experiencing a higher risk of premature death

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Violence and Gangs." Growing Up: Issues Affecting America's Youth. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. 31 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Violence and Gangs." Growing Up: Issues Affecting America's Youth. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. (May 31, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3049400014.html

"Violence and Gangs." Growing Up: Issues Affecting America's Youth. 2008. Retrieved May 31, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3049400014.html

Facts and information from other sites