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Estimates of the magnitude of youth gang problems in the United States steadily increased over the last decades of the twentieth century. An unprecedented public and government response to gang problems at federal, state, and local levels began in 1989. As the century drew to a close, evidence of a leveling off of the scope of gang problems began to emerge. For two consecutive years, in 1997 and 1998, the national estimates of law-violating gangs and gang members tabulated by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s National Youth Gang Center suggested small declines in the total number of city and county jurisdictions reporting youth gang problems. Any relief associated with observing slight reversals in the proliferation of gang problems is diminished by the levels attained by these problems between 1980 and 1995.
History of Juvenile and Youth Gangs
Gangs are not new, and in fact are found increasingly all over the world. Veteran researchers such as Walter Miller and Malcolm Klein suggest that the United States has experienced numerous cycles of gang activity. In response to rumors of violence against him from Baltimore gangs, President Abraham Lincoln disguised himself in his passage through that city on his way to his first inauguration. Fighting between adolescent gangs in Richmond, Virginia, troubled Jefferson Davis to the point that he tried to intervene personally. When cities experienced immigration and industrial development in the latter part of the nineteenth century, organized adolescent groups heavily involved in crime can be identified as gangs were reported to be active in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh as early as 1870. Disorganized aggregations of the children of immigrants from Ireland and Italy roamed the streets of their neighborhoods, largely as disorganized groups, engaged primarily in petty forms of property and crime and directing violence against one another and members of rival gangs.
As immigration patterns varied so did the composition of youth gangs. Levels of violence varied across the decades. In the 1920s, Frederic Thrasher of the University of Chicago became the best known early academic researcher of gangs. Thrasher emphasized the distinction between youth gangs and organized crime and the relationship between the changing ecology of urban areas and gang activity. William Foote Whyte portrayed the gangs of the Depression with young adult members who had few other alternatives outside the gangs of their youth. For the first time, the gangs of the 1960s were composed of significant numbers of racial and ethnic minorities. While levels of violence varied with criminal opportunities and the availability of weapons and eventually automobiles, it is important to recognize the social parallels of gang activity in the United States over the decades. Throughout U.S. history gang activity has tended to be concentrated in urban area heavily populated with families from the lower strata of the social and economic hierarchy.
Gangs are not confined to the United States. Gangs have been reported in many of the nations that emerged from the break-up of the former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc nations. Conflicts between gangs identifying themselves as
‘‘bloods’’ and ‘‘crips’’ have been reported in New Zealand. Klein has documented the growing number of European nations plagued by emerging youth gangs, including Germany, Holland, and France. The role of popular culture, particularly in the export of American cultural images through movies, music, and other forms of media, has had an important impact on this development.
Scope of Juvenile and Youth Gang Problems
Efforts to estimate the number of gangs, gang members, and gang crimes as a national problem were not attempted until 1975. In a government study published that year, Walter Miller concluded that six of twelve major cities had gang problems. Miller estimated that there were 760 to 2,700 gangs and 28,500 to 81,500 gang members in those six gang problem cities. Between 1975 and 1995, the Department of Justice funded at least five national surveys. Each revealed the nation’s gang problems to be more serious and more widespread with new problems emerging in the suburban and even rural jurisdictions. By 1993, conservative estimates for the scope of the U.S. gang problem from local law enforcement records included 8,625 gangs, 378,807 gang members, and 437,066 gang crimes. In 1995, the newly established National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) conducted its first assessment of the national gang problem. A total of 664,906 gang members in 23,388 youth gangs were reported for 1,741 jurisdictions, many of them smaller cities, suburban counties, and rural counties. By linking cities surveyed in 1995 with those surveyed in earlier surveys, G. David Curry and Scott H. Decker showed that there had been an unprecedented increase in the number of cities reporting gang problems between 1993 and 1995.
In an effort to improve the comparability of estimates of the scope of national gang crime problems over time, the NYGC National Gang Survey implemented a systematic annual sampling strategy. It was from comparisons of the 1996, 1997, and 1998 National Gang Surveys that preliminary indications of a leveling off of the great proliferation of gang crime problems were derived. The small declines in the total numbers of jurisdictions nationwide reporting gang problems do not represent uniform decreases in the numbers of jurisdictions with prior gang problems that no longer report a problem. Nor do small declines in gang members or gangrelated homicides reflect across the board decreases in such statistics. The small declines in gang problems represent a greater number of jurisdictions with prior identified gang problems now reporting no gang problems, not the number of jurisdictions reporting new emerging gang problems. Likewise, more jurisdictions report declines in the numbers of gang members than report increases in gang members, and more jurisdictions report declines in gang homicides than report increases in gang homicides. Perhaps most significantly, the two urban jurisdictions with the most serious gang problems, Los Angeles and Chicago, both reported declines in their number of gang-related homicides between 1996 and 1997 and between 1997 and 1998.
Correlates of Gang Proliferation
Still, there can be no question that gang problems had spread across the country over a period of two decades. Gangs have now been documented in every state in the nation, and throughout small-, medium-, and large-sized cities. It should be no surprise that researchers are interested in what factors may have led to this enormous proliferation of gangs in the United States.
Initially, some observers in politics, law enforcement, and journalism suggested that the spread of gangs was part of a purposeful, planned effort on the part of more established gangs to extend their influence and territory. From this perspective, one could imagine gangs in more established, chronic gang cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles looking for new territory to develop expanded membership and acquire new drug turf. The validity of this perspective was challenged by a study conducted by Cheryl Maxson and Malcolm Klein. Maxson and Klein interviewed police officials across the country to determine their perceptions of how gang members might have migrated to their respective jurisdictions. From their survey, Maxson and Klein learned that the spread of gangs, by and large, was due to movement of the families of gang members from one city to another, usually to be close to relatives or to find employment. Another source of the proliferation of symbols of gang membership and gang names is popular culture. Movies, rap videos, and television shows, symbols of gang membership, aspects of gang life, and gang style provided adolescents with models to emulate across the nation, and even around the world. In this way, gang migration can be viewed as part of a larger set of processes rather than as the purposeful movement of gangs into new territory.
A number of researchers have suggested that while popular culture and ordinary migration of gang-involved youth served as mechanisms for gang proliferation, changing social and economic conditions in the 1980s may have facilitated and accelerated the spread of gangs. Studies of gang emergence in rust belt cities such as Milwaukee and St. Louis led researchers to emphasize the importance of the presence of an economically disadvantaged urban underclass to the development and durability of youth gangs. The isolation of the urban underclass from the nation’s economic mainstream was associated with another factor of some importance to the emergence and increasing violence of youth gangs, the incarceration of increasing proportions of urban minority youth. Juvenile detention centers and prisons are now very much a significant institutional feature of gang life.
Juvenile and Youth Gangs and Crime
A universal finding of research has been that gang members participate in a greater number of delinquent and criminal acts than youths who are not involved in gangs. While gang members are involved in significantly more delinquency than nonmembers, not all delinquency by gang members is gang-related. Klein observed that gang members engage in ‘‘cafeteria style’’ delinquency. That is, individual members seldom specialize in a single kind of delinquency. Still, gangrelated delinquency is usually more violent than nongang-related delinquency. And there has been considerable variation across time, communities, and gangs in the scope and nature of gang-related crimes and delinquency.
Surveys of populations of at-risk youth have repeatedly revealed a relationship between gang membership and delinquency. Jeffrey Fagan interviewed high school students and dropouts in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego and concluded that gang members committed more delinquent acts than did nongang members, as well as more serious offenses. Finn-Aage Esbensen and David Huizinga used a longitudinal survey of an at-risk youth population in Denver to show that gang members reported two to three times as much delinquency as nongang members. From longitudinal survey results on a representative sample of Rochester, New York, youth, Terrence Thornberry and his colleagues found that gang-involved youths were significantly more likely to report involvement in violence and other delinquency. By following youths over time, the Rochester study showed gang involvement to be a transitional process, with delinquent activity increasing during gang involvement and declining afterward. Both the Denver and Rochester research concluded that crime and delinquency increased while individuals were members of a gang, and were lower before membership and after membership; these results underscore the role of gang membership in enhancing involvement in crime and delinquency.
Analyses of local law enforcement data have also provided much of what we know about gang-related crime and delinquency. Maxson and her colleagues used Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s Department records to document differences between gang and nongang homicides. Gang homicides were more likely to involve minority males, automobiles, take place in public places, involve the use of firearm, and include a greater number of participants. Gang homicides tended to involve perpetrators and victims with no prior personal relationship. Gang homicide perpetrators and victims were significantly younger than their counterparts involved in nongang homicides, but they were older than the typical youth gang member. Curry and Irving Spergal found that community-level variables, particularly ethnic composition and poverty, were significantly related to differences in gang-related homicide rates in Chicago across community areas and time. In another study of Chicago Police Department records, Richard and Carolyn Block demonstrated that (1) gang violence was more likely to be turf-related than drug-related; (2) patterns of violence of the four largest established street gangs and smaller less established gangs were different; and (3) guns were the lethal weapons in practically all Chicago gangrelated homicides between 1987 and 1990.
For Thrasher, observing Chicago gangs in the early twentieth century, gang involvement in serious delinquency and crime was the culmination of a gang’s evolution from a spontaneous ‘‘play group’’ to a ‘‘conflict-based’’ group. Gangs that became cohesive and better organized were those that survived increasing levels of conflict with other gangs and ultimately legitimate community institutions, in particular the police. Conducting research in Chicago decades later, James Short and Fred Strodtbeck emphasized the importance of the gang as a unit of analysis. Two concepts central to their analysis of gangs as groups were collective perceptions of threat and status. The importance of group factors in gang delinquency was also supported by the research of Klein among Los Angles gangs. For Klein, the key to reducing gang delinquency was helping gang members develop as individuals separate from the group context. In their field study of gang crime in St. Louis, Scott Decker and Barrik Van Winkle described how gang structures and processes can combine local neighborhood dynamics and national-level diffusion of gang cultures. Their findings supported Klein’s emphasis on the collective nature of violence and Short and Strodtbeck’s focus on the collective nature of threat and status in making violence an everpresent feature of gang life. In one analysis, Decker described gang violence as a form of contagion in which the community and group dynamics produced cyclic levels of gang violence. The reciprocal nature of gang violence accounted, in part, for how gangs form initially, grow in size, and vary in cohesion among members.
Drugs and Juvenile and Youth Gangs
There are two competing views about the role of gangs and gang members in drug sales. The first argues that street gangs are wellorganized purveyors of illegal drugs who reinvest the profits from drug sales into the gang. Proponents of this view include researchers Jerome Skolnick, Carl Taylor, and Martin Sanchez Jankowski. Several conditions are required for this understanding of gang drug sales to be operational. First, an organizational structure must be present. This hierarchy must have leaders, roles, and rules. Second, group goals must be widely shared among members. Third, allegiance to the larger organization must be stronger than that to subgroups within it. Finally, the gang must possess the means to control and discipline its members to produce compliance with group goals.
A second approach rejects this notion. Its proponents claim that drug sales by gangs are seldom well-organized and gang members often act independently of the gang in selling drugs. This approach presents a view of gangs as loosely confederated groups generally lacking in persistent forms of cohesion or organization. This view sees the link between gangs and drug sales as much more casual. Traditional street gangs are not well suited for drug distribution or any other businesslike activity. They are weakly organized, prone to unnecessary and unproductive violence, and full of brash, conspicuous, untrustworthy individuals who draw unwanted police attention. For all these reasons, big drug operators, those who turn to drug dealing as a serious career, typically de-emphasize gang activity or leave the gang altogether.
This view is supported by field research with gangs in Milwaukee, San Diego, and St. Louis, among other places. John Hagedorn characterized gangs in Milwaukee as dynamic, evolving associations of adolescents and men. In general, gangs lacking formal roles and effective organizational structures for achieving consensus among members regarding goals or techniques for achieving those goals. Hustling (including street drug sales) was seldom well organized because gangs lacked the organizational structure to effectively control their members. In St. Louis, virtually all of the gang members reported that they used the profits from drug sales for individual consumption, such as to buy clothes or compact discs, not to meet gang objectives. Few gang members reported that they joined their gang for the opportunity to sell drugs; instead they affiliated with the gang for expressive reasons having to do with prior associations in the neighborhood.
A review of police arrest records from five Los Angeles area police stations by Maxson and her colleagues examined the differences between crack sales involving gang members and nongang members. In Los Angeles, individual gangs appeared to lack an effective organizational structure, had an absence of permanent membership or roles, and a lack of shared goals. Compared to nongang transactions, gang crack sales were more likely to occur on the street, involve firearms, include younger suspects, and disproportionately involve black suspects. However, most of these differences were small. In other words, the characteristics associated with crack sales by gang members were not much different from those of nongang members.
Gang Involvement, Gender, and Ethnicity
From the first national survey of gang problems, Walter Miller proposed a general estimate that 10 percent or less of the gang members in the cities that he studies were females. No recent studies of police data on gang members have approached the 10 percent estimate. Surveys of police officials regarding gangs, indicate that even fewer girls are gang members than surveys show, with some estimates as low as 4 percent of all gang members estimated to be females. This set of findings has been challenged recently by school-based surveys of students. These surveys indicate that the number of females who are gang members is growing, and that they may comprise 40 percent of all gang members. In all likelihood, the difference between these two estimates reflect differences in methodology. Police statistics, gang and nongang, are more likely to represent more serious crimes and to focus on males. Surveys, almost always initiated in school settings, are more likely to capture information on less serious self-reported delinquency and usually include equal numbers of males and females. In addition to these factors, evidence has been reported by both Moore and Hagedorn that females tend to give up participation in gangs at an earlier age than males.
Research studies of Chicano gangs in Los Angeles by Joan Moore and Diego Vigil have focused on the cultural elements of gang membership and violence. (Studies of Latino gangs in Chicago by Ruth Horowitz and Felix Padilla have similarly demonstrated the role of culture in gang dynamics.) Moore and Vigil placed primary importance on the role of Chicano culture and the position of Mexican-Americans in the cultural and institutional life of East Los Angeles to explain gang formation and activities. The detachment of Chicano culture from mainstream social and political life was the foundation of her explanation of gang life and criminal involvement. For Moore, Chicano gangs: (1) were territorially based; (2) had a strong age-graded structure resulting in klikas or cohort groups; and (3) made fighting central to gang life. According to Vigil, Chicano youth are in a position of multiple marginality, with the street providing an alternative and appealing socialization path, becoming a collective solution to the problem of identity. The works of Moore and Horowitz identified links between cultures of male machismo and gang violence. For all these researchers, drug involvement among gangs played a particular role in enhancing the connection between cultural issues and violence.
Juvenile and Youth Gangs and Social Institutions
It is important to remember that all but the most hard-core gang members lead a considerable portion of their lives outside the gang. As is the case for most adolescents, institutions such as family and school play important roles in their lives. The work of Joan Moore and Diego Vigil in Los Angeles has pointed to the need for order and regulation in the lives of adolescents. Children naturally seek these conditions, and gangs have come to fulfill these needs for a growing number of youth. In many instances, the gang has begun to fulfill many of the functions formerly held by the family. Gangs provide social cohesion and status, two functions typically fulfilled by a functioning family. As gangs proliferate and last longer, gang members become parents and raise children who are at risk for gang membership.
Decker and Van Winkle interviewed gang members and members of their families about life in the gang. They found that while gang members often characterized the gang as family, few gang members thought the gang behaved like a family and regarded their natal family in much more positive terms. Family members often were unaware of gang membership, especially at the earliest stages of membership. Few family members approved of gang membership and gang members uniformly denied that they wanted their children to grow up to be gang members.
After the family, schools are the most powerful socializing agent in the lives of adolescents. Most children attend school every day and interact with students from a variety of backgrounds. They influence each other in a variety of ways, both positively and negatively. Schools have an important impact on the lives of gang and nongang members, and provide opportunities for nongang youths to learn about and become involved in gangs.
For a growing number of youths, the criminal justice system plays an increasingly important role in their lives. The United States has come to rely upon incarceration as a means to solve the crime problem, and as it does so, contacts between gang members and agents of the criminal justice system increase. There is growing evidence that prison propels many young men who formerly were not gang members toward gang membership. And imprisonment strengthens the ties between many gang members and their gang, as the gang is one of the remaining sources of identification open to incarcerated members. Prison plays an increasingly important role in the lives of gang members.
Responding to Gang-Related Crime and Delinquency
According to Spergal and Curry, five strategies have typically been used to respond to gangs: (1) suppression, (2) social intervention, (3) social opportunities, (4) community mobilization, and (5) organizational change. Suppression included law enforcement and criminal justice interventions such as arrest, prosecution, imprisonment, and surveillance. Most jurisdictions use suppression as their primary response to gang problems. The second most used strategy is social intervention, such as crisis intervention, treatment for youths and their families, and social service referrals. This response includes traditional social service interventions such as counseling. Organizational change is the next most likely choice as a gang intervention strategy. This method typically includes the development of task forces to address gang problems. Community mobilization is the primary response to gangs in a small number of communities. This strategy is deigned to create cooperation across agencies and was designed to produce better coordination of existing services. Social opportunities is the primary response for the smallest number of cities and towns across the country; this approach stresses education, job training, and job provision as its intervention. Cities with chronic gang problems least often employ social opportunities and community mobilization. Despite this, these were the strategies assessed as most effective by the individuals who work most closely with gangs.
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