Youth gang problems are proliferating across the United States, even in small cities and towns. At the same time, the composition of youth gangs is changing. Smaller, less structured gangs are emerging, and although drug trafficking is generally not an organized activity managed by gangs, drug gangs are more predominant now than in previous decades. The racial/ethnic composition of gangs also is changing, and gangs are becoming more organized.

Gang violence -- particularly homicide -- has increased, owing mainly to availability and use of more dangerous weapons, especially automatic and semiautomatic handguns. This violence also has been linked to gangs' proclivity to be associated with drug trafficking. New research, however, questions the extent to which gang-related drug sales are a major cause of violence. It appears that most gang violence is related to conflicts with other gangs.

Most gang problems are homegrown. Gang migration appears to contribute little to local gang problems, including drug trafficking, except within geographic regions. There is some discrepancy between research results and investigatory agency reports on youth and adult gang migration and drug trafficking; however, much of this can be explained by the studies' use of different research methods, definitions, and information sources.

Although significant progress is being made in identifying the major risk factors for youth gang involvement, much more information is needed to specify the developmental sequence by which these risk factors operate. This knowledge will be very useful in the development of prevention and intervention programs. Progress also is being made in developing comprehensive programs that combine prevention, social intervention and rehabilitation, and suppression of gang violence. Because of a dearth of program evaluations, however, little is known about the effectiveness of these interventions. The current evaluation of OJJDP's five-site program may shed more light on the effectiveness of comprehensive programs.

A key issue in combating youth gangs is providing a uniform definition for them -- distinguishing them from troublesome youth groups and adult criminal organizations. Youth gangs and adult criminal organizations have different origins, and they serve unique purposes for participants. Efforts to develop effective long-term interventions must take these differences into account.

Youth Gangs: An Overview Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  August 1998