Scope of the Problem

Photo - JailAssessing the scope of the youth gang problem in the United States is difficult. No consensus exists on what constitutes a youth gang. Many jurisdictions deny the existence of gangs. Others incorrectly, many experts believe, characterize less serious forms of adolescent law-violating groups as gangs (Miller, 1992). Some call gangs by other names, such as "crews" or "posses," although some of these are not bona fide gangs; rather, they are specialized groups engaged in predatory crimes or drug trafficking (Miller, 1992). It appears that communities are likely to label troublesome adolescent groups as gangs if the public perceives them to be a problem (Miller, 1992). Although youth gang definitions vary, most include the following elements: a self-formed group, united by mutual interests, that controls a particular territory, facility, or enterprise; uses symbols in communications; and is collectively involved in crime (Curry and Decker, 1998; Miller, 1992).

Youth Gang Proliferation

Few systematic data are collected routinely on youth gangs at the city or county level, with the exception of a few gang information systems. In the past, intermittent surveys were relied on for assessing the national scope of the gang problem (Curry et al., 1992; Curry, Ball, and Decker, 1996; Klein, 1995; Knox et al., 1996; Miller, 1975, 1992; Needle and Stapleton, 1983). In 1996, the National Youth Gang Center surveyed more than 3,000 law enforcement agencies, 87 percent of which responded, to obtain a more complete count of jurisdictions with gang problems (Moore and Terrett, in press).

Almost three-fourths of cities surveyed with populations of 25,000 or more reported youth gangs in 1996 (Moore and Terrett, in press). Respondents in large cities reported the highest level of gang activity (74 percent), followed by suburban counties (57 percent), small cities (34 percent), and rural counties (25 percent). Most respondents reported that their gang problem began quite recently, with 1994 the most frequently cited year. The average year of onset varied with the type of locality: 1989 for large cities, 1990 for suburban counties, 1992 for small cities, and 1993 for rural counties. Thus, the youth gang problem in this country is substantial and affects communities of all sizes.

Youth gangs are especially widespread in certain cities with chronic gang problems such as Chicago (Block et al., 1996) and Los Angeles (Klein, 1995). Chicago is said to have about 132 gangs (Block et al., 1996), with an estimated membership of 30,000 to 50,000 hardcore gang members (Chicago Crime Commission, 1995). Members of Chicago's four largest and most criminally active gangs, the Black Gangster Disciples Nation, the Latin Disciples, the Latin Kings, and the Vice Lords, number about 19,000 and account for two-thirds of all gang-motivated crimes and for more than half of the city's gang-motivated homicides (Block and Block, 1993). Police in Los Angeles estimate that the city has more than 58,000 gang members (National Youth Gang Center, 1997), making it the U.S. city with the most gang members.

Gang Problems in Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities

Three surveys have assessed youth gang problems in juvenile detention and correctional facilities. The OJJDP-funded Conditions of Confinement: Juvenile Detention and Corrections Facilities study (Parent et al., 1994) included a survey of all detention and correctional facility administrators. Administrators in detention centers and training schools were asked to estimate the proportion of confined juveniles who had problems in particular areas, including gang involvement. In both the detention center and training school populations, facility administrators estimated that about 40 percent of the confined youth were involved in gangs (Leiter, 1993, cited in Snyder and Sickmund, 1995).

A 1990 Juvenile Correctional Institutions Survey (Knox, 1991) found that 160 respondents, more than three-fourths (78 percent) of responding institutions, reported a gang problem for some period of time. Fifty-two percent of the responding institutions reported that more than 10 percent of confined youth were involved in gangs. More than one-third (40 percent) reported gang involvement of female inmates. The survey inquired about problems gangs presented in the institutions. Assaults on correctional officers were reported by 14 percent of respondents; among these, 28 percent reported more than one incident. Of the 150 reported assaults on correctional officers, 11 resulted in hospitalization. Approximately one-third of all responding institutions reported one or more incidents in which violence involving gang members resulted in serious injury.

In a sample of inner-city high schools and juvenile correctional facilities in 4 States, Sheley and Wright (1993, 1995) surveyed more than 800 male serious offenders in 6 juvenile correctional facilities located near urban areas experiencing youth gang problems. Two-thirds (68 percent) of the inmates self-reported affiliation with a gang or a "quasi-gang." Gang members were much more likely than nongang members to have possessed guns: 81 percent of gang and quasi-gang members owned a revolver, and about three-fourths owned an automatic or semiautomatic handgun. Eighty-four percent of the inmates said they carried a gun at least "now and then" in the year or two before being incarcerated, and 55 percent said "all" or "most of the time."

Gangs clearly present significant problems in juvenile detention and correctional facilities. There is evidence that, in addition to contributing to institutional violence, gangs form in these facilities and recruit members there (Moore, Vigil, and Garcia, 1983). The formation of gangs probably is related to inmates' need for protection from other inmates. The Chicago Vice Lords originated in the Illinois State Training School for Boys when several residents decided to form a new gang by pooling their affiliations with other gangs, hoping to form the toughest gang in Chicago (Dawley, 1992; Keiser, 1969). Confinement in a juvenile correctional facility is one of the strongest predictors of adult prison gang membership (Ralph et al., 1996).

Programs are needed to break the cycle of street-level youth gang involvement, further involvement in juvenile detention and correctional facilities and prisons, and continued gang involvement in the communities to which former inmates return.

Community and Economy

A major source of variation in youth gang violence is found in relationships between the gang and the community. J.F. Short, Jr., contends that the concept of gangs used in gang research is too narrow, in that it does not take into account the relevance of gangs and gang membership in other social settings (personal communication to the author, April 24, 1996). First, the gang's relevance goes beyond its relationship to individual gang members. For example, gangs serve as carriers of community traditions and culture (Miller, 1958; Moore, 1978). Second, a youth's identification with a gang affects how others react to him or her. To illustrate, Esbensen and Huizinga (1993) found that negative labeling of gang members is linked to elevated offenses.

Much remains to be learned about the relationship between gangs and their neighborhoods or communities. Sanchez-Jankowski (1991) identified four factors that motivate gangs to make concerted efforts to establish ties with the community. First, the gang needs a "safe haven." Second, it needs a recruitment pool from which to draw its membership. Third, the community provides the gang with important information (e.g., on gangs in other parts of the city). Fourth, the gang needs the community ties for psychological reasons: "A bonding occurs between the gang and the community that builds a social adhesive that often takes a significant amount of time to completely dissolve" (Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991:201). These are important features of youth gangs. Sanchez-Jankowski (1991) has argued that community ambivalence toward gangs exists because many of the gang members are children of residents, the gangs often provide protection for residents, residents identify with gangs because of their own or relatives' prior involvement, and the gangs in some instances have become community institutions; personal interests (fear of too much policing, fear of too much gang activity) also figure in community perceptions of gangs.

Another reason for ambivalence toward, or acceptance of, gangs could be the changing economy. Recent gang theory has focused on the effects of the changing urban economy on gang-neighborhood dynamics (Bursik and Grasmick, 1993). The transition during the 1970's from a manufacturing to a service-based economy in the United States drastically changed economic conditions, reducing the demand for low-skilled workers in an increasingly service-oriented, high-tech society, restricting their access to the labor market, and blocking their upward mobility, creating what Glasgow (1980) first called the underclass (see also Wilson, 1987, 1996). Fagan (1996) describes the underclass' plight as being permanently excluded from participating in mainstream labor market occupations. As a result, members of the underclass must rely on other economic alternatives: low-paying temporary jobs, part-time jobs in the secondary labor market, some form of welfare or dependence on friends and relatives, or involvement in drug trafficking and other profitable street crimes (Moore, 1988). Several gang researchers (Bursik and Grasmick, 1993; Decker, 1996; Hagedorn, 1988; Moore, 1978, 1985; Sullivan 1989; Vigil, 1988) have argued that crime, delinquency, gangs, and youth violence have increased in the 1980's and 1990's as a result of these postindustrial society conditions.

Youth Gangs: An Overview Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  August 1998