Changing Composition of Youth Gangs

The popular image of youth gangs is that they are becoming more formally organized and more threatening to society, and therefore should be feared. Supergangs with thousands or tens of thousands of members, including adults, have existed at least since the 1960's (Spergel, 1995). Like other gangs, they grow in times of conflict or crisis and decrease in size at other times (Spergel, 1990). Some gangs with a high proportion of adult members have very sophisticated organizational networks, much like large corporations (see McCormick, 1996). The Black Gangster Disciples Nation (BGDN) exemplifies such an evolution from a relatively disorganized criminal street gang to a formal criminal organization (Spergel, 1995). Its corporate hierarchy (see McCormick, 1996) comprises a chairman of the board, two boards of directors (one for prisons, another for the streets), governors (who control drug trafficking within geographical areas), regents (who supply the drugs and oversee several drug-selling locations within the governors' realms), area coordinators (who collect revenues from drug-selling spots), enforcers (who beat or kill members who cheat the gang or disobey other rules), and "shorties" (youth who staff drug-selling spots and execute drug deals). From 1987 to 1994, BGDN was responsible for more than 200 homicides (Block et al., 1996). One-half of their arrests were for drug offenses and only one-third were for nonlethal violence.

Klein (1995:36) observed that "the old, traditional gang structure of past decades seems to be declining." In an earlier era, youth gangs might have comprised several hundred members and were generally age graded, consisting of several discrete subgroups based on age (Klein and Crawford, 1967; Moore, 1991; Miller, 1974). Both youth and adult gangs had these characteristics. Recently, however, age-graded and geographically based youth and adult gangs have become less common (see Klein and Maxson, 1996). These have given way "to relatively autonomous, smaller, independent groups, poorly organized and less territorial than used to be the case" (Klein, 1995:36). Leadership "is complex, fluid and responsive, more diffuse than concentrated, and depends in large part on the particular activity being conducted" (Miller, 1974:217). Even large youth gangs composed of allied "sets" may not be well organized and may be in a constant state of flux because of the various subgroups, changing leadership, and limited number of hardcore members (Sanders, 1994).

Although they are very much in the minority, youth and adult drug gangs are more predominant now than in the 1970's and 1980's. Klein (1995) identifies a number of common differences between youth gangs and drug gangs, recognizing that there is some overlap in these dimensions (see table 2).

Table 2: Common Differences Between Street Gangs and Drug Gangs

Street Gangs Drug Gangs

Versatile ("cafeteria-style") crime
Larger structures
Less cohesive
Looser leadership
Ill-defined roles
Code of loyalty
Residential territories
Members may sell drugs
Intergang rivalries
Younger on average, but wider age range
Crime focused on drug business
Smaller structures
More cohesive
More centralized leadership
Market-defined roles
Requirement of loyalty
Sales market territories
Members do sell drugs
Competition controlled
Older on average, but narrower age range
Source: Klein, 1995:132.

The racial/ethnic composition of gangs also appears to be changing. African-American and Hispanic gangs still predominate, but law enforcement agencies in a number of cities are now reporting Asian and South Pacific groups, more white gangs, and more racial/ethnic mixing than in the past (Klein, 1995).

The growth of adult prison gangs is also a fairly recent development (Ralph et al., 1996). These gangs began to be a significant factor in State prisons in the late 1960's and early 1970's, and some States are now reporting an increase in gang-related inmate violence. Moreover, there is evidence that prison gangs in Texas, for example, are exporting their operations to large urban areas in the State (Ralph et al., 1996). These developments are of concern because when adult gang member inmates return to their home communities, they give vitality to local youth gangs (Moore, 1988).

Youth Gangs: An Overview Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  August 1998