Youth Gangs and Violence

Youth gang violence from the 1950's to the 1980's has a curious history. Miller (1992:2) contended that the national perspective of gangs during this period was dominated by a New York City media view: "a flowering in the 1950s, death in the 1960s, revival in the early 1970s, and dormancy in the later 1970s." His survey of gang problems in major American cities (Miller, 1975, 1992) proved the latter part of this media theory to be wrong. Miller's study showed that gang violence was very prevalent in the 1960's and 1970's. He argued that nothing had changed from the 1950's; rather, media and public attention were diverted from gangs to the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and ensuing riots.

Miller's (1992) study indicated that gangs had become more dangerous than ever in the 1970's. He attributed this to four major motives: honor, defense of local turf, control [of facilities], and gain [of money and goods]. In the 1970's, "gang crime was more lethal than any time in history; more people were shot, stabbed, and beaten to death in gang-related incidents than during any previous decade . . . and the prevalence and sophistication of firearms used was unprecedented" (Miller, 1992:142).

Except for gangs that specialize in violence, such as small Chicago Latino gangs (Block et al., 1996), violence is a rare occurrence in proportion to all gang activities (Maxson, 1995; Miller, 1966; Strodtbeck and Short, 1964). It should be noted that violent behavior is not the only behavior in which gang members partake. For the most part, gang members "hang out" and are involved in other normal adolescent social activities, but drinking, drug use, and drug trafficking are also common (Battin et al., 1998; Decker and Van Winkle, 1996; Esbensen, Huizinga, and Weiher, 1993). Although a direct comparison cannot be made, it is apparent that the relative proportion of violence in gang behaviors has increased since the 1950's.

The introduction to this Bulletin notes that youth gang members commit a disproportionate share of offenses, including nonviolent ones. In the Seattle study supported by OJJDP, gang members (15 percent of the sample) self-reported committing 58 percent of general delinquent acts in the entire sample, 51 percent of minor assaults, 54 percent of felony thefts, 53 percent of minor thefts, 62 percent of drug-trafficking offenses, and more than 59 percent of property offenses (Battin et al., 1998). In the OJJDP-funded Causes and Correlates study, Denver gang members (14 percent of the sample) self-reported committing 43 percent of drug sales and 55 percent of all street offenses (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993). In the same study, Rochester gang members (30 percent of the sample) self-reported committing 70 percent of drug sales, 68 percent of all property offenses, and 86 percent of all serious delinquencies (Thornberry, 1998). Curry, Ball, and Decker (1996) estimated that gang members accounted for nearly 600,000 crimes in 1993.

Gang members also commit serious and violent offenses at a rate several times higher than nongang adolescents. In Denver, gang members committed approximately three times as many serious and violent offenses as nongang youth (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993). Even greater differences were observed in Rochester (Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993), where gang members committed about seven times as many serious and violent delinquent acts as nongang adolescents. Seattle gang youth (ages 12-18) self-reported more than five times as many violent offenses (hitting someone, fighting, and robbery) as nongang youth (Hill et al., in press). In Rochester, two-thirds of chronic violent offenders were gang members for a time (Thornberry, Huizinga, and Loeber, 1995). As Moore (1991:132) has observed, "gangs are no longer just at the rowdy end of the continuum of local adolescent groups -- they are now really outside the continuum."

How strong are the effects of gang membership on the behavior of individual members? Studies in the three cities showed that the influence of the gang on levels of youth violence is greater than the influence of other highly delinquent peers (Battin et al., 1998; Huizinga, 1997; Thornberry, 1998). Youth commit many more serious and violent acts while they are gang members than they do after they leave the gang (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Hill et al., 1996; Thornberry et al., 1993). However, the influence of a gang is long lasting. In all three sites, although gang members' offense rates dropped after they left the gang, they still remained fairly high (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Hill et al., 1996; Thornberry et al., 1993). Drug use and trafficking rates, the most notable exceptions to offense rate drops, remained nearly as high after members left the gang as when they were active in it (Hill et al., 1996). This study also showed that in comparison with single-year gang members, multiple-year members had much higher robbery and drug-trafficking rates while in the gang.

Gangs are highly criminogenic in certain cities and communities. Studies have not yet determined what accounts for the high levels of individual serious and violent offense rates in gangs or the lasting effects of gang involvement. Are the individual characteristics of gang members a key factor? These characteristics could be important (Yablonsky, 1962), but Esbensen, Huizinga, and Weiher (1993) found no differences in the extent to which Denver gang members, nongang street offenders, and nonoffenders were involved in eight different conventional activities: holding schoolyear jobs, holding summer jobs, attending school, and participating in school athletics, other school activities, community athletics, community activities, and religious activities. Nor have long-term studies succeeded in identifying characteristics that distinguish gang members from other serious, violent, and chronic offenders. The main difference between the two groups is gang members' higher propensity for violence (Esbensen, Huizinga, and Weiher, 1993; Horowitz, 1983; Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Vigil, 1988); however, this could be because more violent adolescents may be recruited into gangs.

Gang norms also constitute an important factor in the elevated level of violence in gang peer groups: "Violence that is internal to the gang, especially during group functions such as an initiation, serves to intensify the bonds among members" (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996: 270). Most gangs are governed by norms supporting the expressive use of violence to settle disputes (Short and Strodtbeck, 1965) and to achieve group goals associated with member recruitment, defense of one's identity as a gang member, turf protection and expansion, and defense of the gang's honor (Block and Block, 1993). Gang sanctioning of violence is also dictated by a code of honor that stresses the inviolability of one's manhood and defines breaches of etiquette (Horowitz, 1983; Sanchez-Jankowksi, 1991). Violence is also a means of demonstrating toughness and fighting ability and of establishing status in the gang (Short and Strodtbeck, 1965).

These norms -- coupled with the fact that violence is contagious (Loftin, 1986) and clustered in space, escalates over time (Block and Block, 1991), and likely spreads more quickly among youth who are violence prone -- may explain why the level of violence in gangs is higher than in other delinquent peer groups. Willingness to use violence is a key characteristic distinguishing gangs from other adolescent peer groups (Horowitz, 1983; Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Sanders, 1994). Violence also serves to maintain organization within the gang and to control gang members (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996; Horowitz, 1983; Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Yablonsky, 1962).

Levels of gang violence differ from one city to another (Miller, 1974), from one community to another (Block and Block, 1993), from one gang to another (Fagan, 1989), and even among cliques within the same gang (Moore, 1988). Violence in a particular clique changes as the group evolves: "Violence is a variable. Violence is not something inevitable and fixed with gangs" (Moore, 1988:225). Decker (1996) delineates a seven-step process that accounts for the peaks and valleys in levels of gang violence. The process begins with a loosely organized gang:

Bullet Gang members feel loose bonds to the gang.
Bullet Gang members collectively perceive a threat from a rival gang (which increases gang cohesion).
Bullet A mobilizing event occurs -- possibly, but not necessarily, violent.
Bullet There is an escalation of activity.
Bullet One of the gangs lashes out in violence.
Bullet Violence and activity rapidly deescalate.
Bullet The other gang retaliates.

Although our society has substantial basis for fearing the violence of certain gangs, most gang violence is directed at other gangs. Of nearly 1,000 gang-related homicides in Chicago from 1987 to 1994, 75 percent were intergang, 11 percent were intragang, and 14 percent involved nongang victims murdered by gang members (Block et al., 1996). Most of the intergang conflicts are concentrated in specific areas of cities with gang problems. These disputes over turf are generally played out in fights along the borders of disputed territory. Also, as Block and colleagues point out (1996:11), "Spatial analysis suggests a 'marauder' pattern, in which members of rival gangs travel to the hub of their enemy's territory in search of potential victims." Violent episodes generally occur within a mile of the attacker's residence. Rivalries with other gangs, not vengeance against society, provide the motivation for gang growth and expansion.


Photo - GunAdolescent propensity for violence and gun ownership and use are closely linked. Juvenile males who own guns for protection rather than for sport are six times more likely to carry guns, eight times more likely to commit a crime with a gun, four times more likely to sell drugs, almost five times more likely to be in a gang, and three times more likely to commit serious and violent crimes than youth who do not own guns for protection (Lizotte et al., 1994). Gangs are more likely to recruit adolescents who own firearms, and gang members are more than twice as likely as nongang members to own a gun for protection, more likely to have peers who own guns for protection, and more likely to carry their guns outside the home (Bjerregaard and Lizotte, 1995).

Gangs have always been armed with weapons of some sort (Newton and Zimring, 1969; Strodtbeck and Short, 1964). Recent studies have found that most violent gang members illegally own or possess a firearm (Sheley and Wright, 1993, 1995), and the lethality of assaults appears to have increased steadily (Block and Block, 1993) because of the availability and use of deadlier weapons. Gang members arm themselves because they believe their rivals have guns. According to Decker and Van Winkle (1996:23), "The proliferation of guns and shootings by gang members escalates violence by creating a demand for armaments among rival gangs." They feel they need more guns, and more sophisticated ones, so they will not be caught at a disadvantage (Horowitz, 1983).

Homicides. Although current national data on youth gang homicides is sparse, they may be following the national homicide pattern, which is in a downturn (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1997). The growing use of more lethal weapons in gang assaults has been driving gang homicides. For example, from 1987 to 1990, virtually all of the increase in Chicago gang-motivated homicides appears to be attributable to an increase in the use of high-caliber, automatic, or semiautomatic weapons (Block and Block, 1993). The Blocks found that during a period in which there was no increase in street gang assaults, gang homicides increased, indicating that the lethality of weapons (deaths per incident) accounted for the greater number of homicides (see also Zimring, 1996). In Los Angeles, the proportion of gang-related homicides involving firearms increased from 71 percent in 1979 to 95 percent in 1994, mainly because of the increased use of handguns, particularly semiautomatics (Hutson et al., 1995). Surprisingly, assault weapons are rarely used in gang-related drive-by shootings and other homicides (Hutson, Anglin, and Pratts, 1994; Hutson et al., 1995; National Drug Intelligence Center, 1995).

National trend data on gang homicides are scant. Miller (1982) provided the first national tabulation of gang homicides, reporting a total of 633 gang-related killings in major gang cities in 1980. Since that time, gang homicides have increased dramatically, reaching epidemic proportions in certain cities like Chicago and Los Angeles.5 The annual number of youth and adult gang-motivated homicides in Chicago increased almost fivefold between 1987 and 1994, then dropped slightly in 1995 (Block et al., 1996; Maxson, in press[a]). Youth and adult gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County more than doubled from 1987 to 1992, from 387 to 803 (Klein, 1995), dropped slightly in 1993, climbed back to the 800 level by 1995, then dropped by 20 percent in 1996 (Maxson, in press[a]). Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department data reported by the California Department of Justice (1998) also indicate this drop in gang-related homicides.

Chicago and Los Angeles alone accounted for more than 1,000 youth and adult gang homicides in 1995 (Maxson, in press[a]). Data on youth gangs in particular reveal that a member's risk of being killed is 60 times greater than that of the general population (Morales, 1992), and even higher in certain cities. For example, Decker and Van Winkle (1996) found that in St. Louis, the gang member homicide rate is 1,000 times higher than the U.S. homicide rate. National data on gang homicides were gathered in the 1995 National Youth Gang Survey (National Youth Gang Center, 1997) and again in 1996.6

Gang homicides have characteristics that distinguish them from nongang homicides (Maxson, Gordon, and Klein, 1985). Homicides by gang members are more likely to take place in public settings (particularly on the street), involve strangers and multiple participants, and involve automobiles (drive-by shootings). Gang homicides are three times more likely than nongang homicides to involve fear of retaliation. Unlike other homicides, gang homicides fluctuate from one racial/ethnic group to another at a given point in time and in different community areas within the same city (Block and Christakos, 1995). Gang homicide trends are also characterized by periodic spurts (Block, 1993), peaking, retreating to higher plateaus than before, then surging upward again. Spurts in gang homicides are explained largely by turf disputes between gangs (Block et al., 1996; Block and Block, 1993; Block and Christakos, 1995). The spurts are not citywide, but occur in specific neighborhoods and involve particular gangs. Each homicide peak tends to correspond to a series of escalating confrontations, usually over control of territory -- either traditional street gang turf or an entre-preneurial drug market (Block and Christakos, 1995).7

Drive-by shootings. Gang-related drive-by shootings have increased in certain cities. Interestingly, killing is a secondary intent; promoting fear and intimidation among rival gangs is the primary motive (Hutson, Anglin, and Eckstein, 1996).

From 1989 through 1993, 33 percent of Los Angeles gang-related homicides were drive-bys (Hutson, Anglin, and Eckstein, 1996), resulting in 590 homicides. In Chicago, from 1965 through 1994, only 120 gang homicides resulted from drive-by shootings (about 6 percent of the total), most of which (59 percent) occurred after 1984 (Block et al., 1996).

Drug Trafficking

Photo - Money and CocaineAlthough youth gangs appear to be increasing their involvement in drug trafficking, empirical research has not documented extensive networks of drug trafficking as an organized activity managed by youth gangs. The consensus among the most experienced gang researchers is that the organizational structure of the typical gang is not particularly suited to the drug-trafficking business (Klein, 1995; Moore, 1990; Spergel, 1995; Waldorf, 1993).

Some gang members become involved in drug trafficking by acting on their own, and some by involvement in gang cliques. Several researchers have identified drug-trafficking gangs and cliques within gangs established for drug distribution purposes (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996; Fagan, 1989; Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Skolnick et al., 1988; Taylor, 1989; Waldorf, 1993). In Chicago (Block et al., 1996), Detroit (Taylor, 1989), Milwaukee (Hagedorn, 1988, 1994a, 1994b), and San Francisco (Waldorf, 1993), a few gangs have developed lucrative drug-trafficking enterprises, and in some cases most of their violence is associated with drug trafficking. Chicago's Vice Lords and the Black Gangster Disciples are notable examples (Block and Block, 1993; Block et al., 1996).

Much has been made of the supposed relation between adolescent drug trafficking and violence (Blumstein, 1995a, 1995b; Fox, 1996). However, several gang studies have found the relation between these two behaviors to be weak or nonexistent. Despite a high prevalence of drug trafficking among Seattle gang members, accelerated adolescent involvement in drug trafficking after joining a gang, and a strong correlation between drug trafficking in midadolescence and selling drugs in late adolescence, a recent analysis of longitudinal data showed that gang involvement in drug trafficking is not a strong predictor of violence (Howell et al., in press). Several other gang studies have produced similar findings (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996; Esbensen and Huizinga; 1993; Fagan, 1989; Klein, Maxson, and Cunningham, 1991; Maxson, 1995).

Drug use, drug trafficking, and violence overlap considerably in gangs (Howell and Decker, in press). Moreover, gang involvement appears to increase individual involvement in drug use, drug trafficking, gun carrying, and violence and, perhaps, to prolong involvement in drug sales. Although drug use is strongly associated with drug trafficking, which is strongly associated with gun carrying and other serious and violent crimes, drug trafficking is not necessarily a direct cause of more frequent violent offending except in established youth and adult drug-trafficking gangs. More research is needed to resolve this issue.

Gang migration. There is some discrepancy between research results and law enforcement investigatory agency reports on youth and adult gang migration and drug trafficking (see Maxson, Woods, and Klein, 1996). This discrepancy has many determinants, including different research methods used in the various studies, different definitions, and different information sources. Most of this gap may be accounted for by variations in definitions of gangs -- and also the lack of a clear distinction between youth gangs and adult criminal organizations in reports of gang migration and drug trafficking. Some of the apparent affiliation of small local youth gangs with large gangs in major cities, indicated by similar gang names, may involve imitation or symbolism (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). Fortunately, the gap is being narrowed, as seen through recent studies reported below.

Some possible expansion. A California study (Skolnick, 1989; Skolnick et al., 1988) suggested that the two major Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, were expanding their drug-trafficking operations to other cities. The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) (1994) reported "a noticeable spread of Bloods/Crips gangs across the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s." Gangs claiming affiliation with the Bloods or Crips were reported in 180 jurisdictions in 42 States. In a 1996 survey of 301 local law enforcement agencies (National Drug Intelligence Center, 1996), Chicago-based gangs were reported in 110 jurisdictions in 35 States.

Common reasons to migrate. A 1992 nationwide gang migration study of youth and adult gangs surveying 1,100 U.S. cities shows that the most common reasons to migrate (movement of members from one city to another) are social considerations, including family moves to improve the quality of life and to be near relatives and friends (Maxson, in press[b]; Maxson, Woods, and Klein, 1996). Drug franchising is not the principal driving force. Migrants usually arrive individually rather than with gang companions, and existence of local gangs precedes migrating gang members in almost every instance. Only one-fifth of cities reporting gang migration attributed their gang problem to this factor. However, cities reporting gang migration said local crime rates or patterns generally were affected by migrants, primarily through increases in theft, robbery, and other violent crimes: "Gang migrants were generally not perceived as having a substantial impact on the local drug market, probably because of their relatively low numbers" (Maxson, Woods, and Klein, 1996:27). In reference to youth gangs, most gang problems are "homegrown" (Klein, 1995). Several local studies of drug-trafficking youth gangs also have not found migration to be an important factor (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996; Hagedorn, 1988; Huff, 1989; Rosenbaum and Grant, 1983; Waldorf, 1993; Zevitz and Takata, 1992; see also Maxson, in press[b]).

Drug trafficking is a small factor. The availability of more intelligence has enabled investigatory agencies to track the movement of youth and adult gangs more precisely. The NDIC Street Gang Symposium (NDIC, 1995) concluded that, as the exception rather than the rule, some well organized street gangs are engaged in interstate drug trafficking. As youth and adult gang members relocate throughout the country for various reasons, the gang's drug-trafficking connections are indirectly expanded. This new information is fairly consistent with the findings of the Maxson migration study.

It is clear that some youth gangs have extended their drug-trafficking operations to other States and cities. Their impact on local markets could be significant. Some of the migrant connections may be initiated by distant gangs for the purpose of obtaining drugs or guns (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). However, gang migration for drug-trafficking purposes is mainly limited to within-the-region movement. Further research is needed on the impact of migrating gangs on local drug trafficking.

Homicide and the drug trade. Because the growth in youth gang violence coincided with the crack cocaine epidemic (Inciardi, 1986; Inciardi and Pottieger, 1991; Klein, 1995), the two developments appeared to be interrelated (Klein, Maxson, and Cunningham, 1991; Moore, 1990). Nonempirical assessments conducted by local governmental agencies (California Council on Criminal Justice, 1989; Skolnick et al., 1988), the U.S. Congress (Clark, 1991; General Accounting Office, 1989), and by the executive branch of the Federal Government (Bryant, 1989; Drug Enforcement Administration, 1988; Hayeslip, 1989; McKinney, 1988) concluded that gangs were instrumental in the increase in crack cocaine sales and that their involvement in drug trafficking resulted in a growth in youth violence, including homicide.

The presumed strong correlation between youth and adult gang-related homicides and drug trafficking has been questioned in several studies. Studies in Boston (Kennedy, Piehl, and Braga, 1996; Miller, 1994), Chicago (Block and Block, 1993; Block et al., 1996), Miami (Inciardi, 1990; Sampson, 1985, 1988), Los Angeles (Hutson et al., 1995; Klein, Maxson, and Cunningham, 1991; Maxson, 1995; Meehan and O'Carroll, 1992), and St. Louis (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996) consistently show a low correlation between gang-related homicides and drug trafficking (see Howell, 1997). Two caveats explain important exceptions.

First, some youth and adult gang homicides are related to the drug business, from a low of 2 percent in Chicago for the period from 1965 to 1994 (Block et al., 1996) up to 34 percent in Los Angeles for the years 1988 and 1989 (Maxson and Klein, 1996). Although most gang drug wars appear to involve adult criminal organizations, some do involve youth gangs. These can produce a large number of drug-related homicides, particularly in the case of prolonged gang wars.

Second, drug trafficking contributes indirectly to youth and adult gang homicides. Although studies indicate that drug trafficking is an infrequent cause of youth and adult gang homicide, the existence of gang drug markets provides a context in which gang homicides are more likely to occur (Hagedorn, in press). Most youth and adult gang homicides involve intergang conflicts and drug markets bring rival gang members into proximity with one another (Block et al., 1996).

There is no question that in particular communities in certain cities, youth gangs are very active in drug trafficking. However, the common stereotypes of the relationships between gangs, drug trafficking, and violence are sensationalized (Moore, 1990). Where drug-related violence occurs, it mainly stems from drug use and dealing by individual gang members and from gang member involvement in adult criminal drug distribution networks more than from drug-trafficking activities of the youth gang as an organized entity (see Howell and Decker, in press).

Youth gang homicides result more from intergang conflict than from the drug trade (Block et al., 1996; Block and Block, 1993). Most are due to impulsive and emotional defense of one's identity as a gang member, defense of the gang and gang members, defense and glorification of the reputation of the gang, gang member recruitment, and territorial disputes. Most drug distribution network groups involving youth grew out of criminal organizations formed solely for crack distribution and bear little resemblance to traditional youth gangs (Fagan, 1996; Inciardi, 1990; Moore, 1990). These findings suggest that interventions should be designed to target youth and adult gang homicides and drug trafficking as separate phenomena, except in cases in which street gang drug markets overlap with violence "hot spots" (areas with high gang crime rates) (Block et al., 1996).

  1. Law enforcement agencies define gang homicides differently (see Maxson and Klein, 1990). In the broader definition (used in Los Angeles), "gang-related" homicide, the basic element is evidence of gang membership on the side of either the suspect or the victim. In the narrower definition (used in Chicago), a "gang-motivated" homicide is considered to be a gang crime only if the preponderance of evidence indicates that the incident grew out of a street gang function. Using the latter, more restrictive definition in counting gang homicides will produce totals about half as large as when the former, broader definition is used.

  2. OJJDP's recently published Program Summary 1995 National Youth Gang Survey, which was prepared by the National Youth Gang Center, does not include the data collected in the survey on homicide. These data are currently being analyzed by the National Youth Gang Center, and a report is forthcoming.

  3. The relation between homicide and drug trafficking will be discussed later in this Bulletin.

Youth Gangs: An Overview Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  August 1998