Youth Gangs: An Overview

James C. Howell

The proliferation of youth gangs since 1980 has fueled the public's fear and magnified possible misconceptions about youth gangs. To address the mounting concern about youth gangs, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has initiated the Youth Gang Series to delve into many of the key issues related to youth gangs. These issues include gang migration, gang growth, female involvement with gangs, homicide, drugs and violence, and the needs of communities and youth who live in the presence of youth gangs. This Bulletin, the first in the series, provides an overview of the problems that youth gangs pose, pinpoints the differences between youth gangs and adult criminal organizations, examines the risk factors that lead to youth gang membership, and presents promising strategies being used to curb youth gang involvement.


The United States has seen rapid proliferation of youth gangs1 since 1980. During this period, the number of cities with gang problems increased from an estimated 286 jurisdictions with more than 2,000 gangs and nearly 100,000 gang members in 1980 (Miller, 1992) to about 4,800 jurisdictions with more than 31,000 gangs and approximately 846,000 gang members in 1996 (Moore and Terrett, in press).2 An 11-city survey of eighth graders found that 9 percent were currently gang members, and 17 percent said they had belonged to a gang at some point in their lives (Esbensen and Osgood, 1997).

Other studies reported comparable percentages and also showed that gang members were responsible for a large proportion of violent offenses. In the Rochester site of the OJJDP-funded Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency, gang members (30 percent of the sample) self-reported committing 68 percent of all violent offenses (Thornberry, 1998). In the Denver site, adolescent gang members (14 percent of the sample) self-reported committing 89 percent of all serious violent offenses (Huizinga, 1997). In another study, supported by OJJDP and several other agencies and organizations, adolescent gang members in Seattle (15 percent of the sample) self-reported involvement in 85 percent of robberies committed by the entire sample (Battin et al., 1998).

This Bulletin reviews data and research to consolidate available knowledge on youth gangs that are involved in criminal activity. Following a historical perspective, demographic information is presented. The scope of the problem is assessed, including gang problems in juvenile detention and correctional facilities. Several issues are then addressed by reviewing gang studies to provide a clearer understanding of youth gang problems. An extensive list of references is provided for further review.

  1. This overview relies on definitions of the term "youth gang" offered by the leading gang theorists and researchers. For the purposes of this review, a group must be involved in a pattern of criminal acts to be considered a youth gang. These groups are typically composed only of juveniles, but may include young adults in their membership. Prison gangs, ideological gangs, hate groups, and motorcycle gangs are not included. Likewise, gangs whose membership is restricted to adults and that do not have the characteristics of youth gangs are excluded (see Curry and Decker, 1998). Unless otherwise noted, the term "gangs" refers to youth gangs.

  2. Sheriff's departments were asked to report data only on unincorporated areas in an effort to reduce redundancies. Respondents were allowed to use their own definition of a gang, with the guidance that "youth gang" was defined as "a group of youths in the [respondent's] jurisdiction that the [respondent or other] responsible persons in the [respondent's] agency or community are willing to identify or classify as a 'gang'." Motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, and adult gangs were excluded. See Moore (1997) and National Youth Gang Center (1997) for results of the 1995 National Youth Gang Survey.

Youth Gangs: An Overview Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  August 1998