Research on Gangs

The Research Division directly supports OJJDP's strong emphasis on gang prevention, intervention, and suppression. To design programs that prevent juveniles from becoming involved in gang activity, it is necessary to understand how and why juvenile gangs form. OJJDP s research also tracks the prevalence of juvenile gang activity in the country, the ways in which gangs emerge, and the community factors that work to reduce and eliminate gangs. Research and evaluation in this area have been of great national interest.

The Research Division sponsors a broad-based research program on specific types of gangs (e.g., American Indian, Asian-American), gangs in certain settings (e.g., schools, detention centers), and risk factors for gang membership. The diversity of this research is outlined below.

  • Gang Membership and Affiliation in Serious and Violent Delinquency (University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY)). Using the sample of juveniles from the Rochester Youth Development Study, researchers are seeking to learn more about whether gang membership itself contributes to delinquent behavior by comparing members with youth not involved with gangs. What proportion of offenses are attributable to gang members? How do gang members differ from other youth who are involved in law-violating youth groups? In what ways do gangs facilitate delinquent behavior? The study is examining both risk and protective factors associated with gang membership.

  • Developmental Dynamics of Gang Membership and Delinquency (University of Washington, WA). Analyzing longitudinal research data on youth from ages 10 to 18, researchers are identifying risk and protective factors for gang membership and criminal activity. This study is also looking at the causes and impacts of early gang initiation, predictors of sustained versus short-term gang membership, and the impact of criminal justice involvement on gang members.

  • Youth Gangs in Juvenile Detention and Correction Facilities (National Juvenile Detention Association, KY). This research assesses the nature and extent of youth gang problems in juvenile confinement facilities in order to improve juvenile justice system management and rehabilitation of gang-involved youth. The study includes a national survey, development of risk-needs assessment instruments, and development of model youth gang program concepts for juvenile confinement facilities. Plans include implementation and testing of the model in selected jurisdictions in the future.

  • Socialization to Gangs in an Emerging Gang City (Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri at St. Louis, MO). Jointly sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and OJJDP, this program is a replication of the methodology used at the University of Chicago. Researchers are comparing the general applicability of measures of youth gang involvement in a chronic gang city to gang involvement in an emerging gang city. They are collecting baseline data on at-risk youth in a city with an emerging gang problem and also identifying key risk factors for gang involvement and delinquency.

  • Delinquency and Criminal Street Gang Affiliation Among Southeast Asian Youth (Westminster Police Department, CA). Researchers are examining the relationship between juvenile delinquency and gang and nongang group affiliation of Southeast Asian refugee youth. The project includes a series of qualitative focus groups of experts in Southeast Asian culture and experts in gang behavior to examine the social, historical, and environmental roots of criminal behavior in the context of this community. Law enforcement data and interviews with both delinquent and nondelinquent youth are also a part of the study. Findings are essential to develop effective community-based intervention strategies to reduce juvenile delinquency among Southeast Asian youth.

  • Finding and Knowing the Gang Naye'e in the Navajo Nation (Navajo Nation Judicial Branch, AZ). This is the first comprehensive assessment of gang activity by a tribal government. Researchers are using a mixed research design of quantitative and qualitative assessment and have included close community involvement at all stages. Justice agency data and followup surveys were initially reviewed to assess the gang problem. Community members are actively involved in assisting researchers to understand the nature, extent, and causes of Navajo Nation gang violence. A goal of the project is to discover approaches to dealing with gangs that can be adapted by other Indian nations.

  • The National Youth Gang Center (FL). The center managed by the Research Division, collects data (including the annual National Youth Gang Survey), analyzes State legislation related to gangs, conducts gang literature reviews, identifies promising gang program strategies, and provides programmatic support to a National Youth Gang Consortium (the consortium). The consortium comprises all Federal agency programs and enforcement offices engaged in antigang activities. Convened quarterly, its goal is to build partnerships and coordinate Federal resources at the local level as part of a comprehensive Federal gang prevention, suppression, and intervention initiative. Consortium objectives include coordination of research and program development, data collection, information exchange and service delivery, and increased public awareness of and approaches to dealing with gangs and their victims.

    The National Youth Gang Survey (Institute for Intergovernmental Research, FL), conducted annually since 1995, gathers basic data from police and sheriff's departments across the Nation regarding the number of youth gangs and the number of youth gang members in local jurisdictions. For survey purposes, a youth gang is defined as "a group of youths in (the respondent's) jurisdiction that (the respondent) or other responsible persons in (the respondent's) agency are willing to identify or classify as a 'gang.' " The survey does not include motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, or exclusively adult gangs.

What Have We Learned?

The Research Division's gang-related research projects have produced a number of important findings for juvenile justice, law enforcement, schools, and community-based service providers.

  • The juvenile gang problem affects communities of all sizes and in all regions of the United States. Of the more than 2,700 law enforcement agencies responding to the 1997 National Youth Gang Survey, 51 percent reported that gangs were active in their jurisdictions. This is a slight decrease (-2 percent) from 1996. Gang activity is most prevalent in jurisdictions in the West (74 percent). While there was an overall decline in gang prevalence and membership in 1997, the number of gang members rose in small cities and rural counties.

  • Risk factors for gang membership have been identified. Research has identified risk factors for juvenile gang membership at a variety of levels: community, family, school, peer group, and individual. Presented in Youth Gangs: An Overview by James C. Howell (see the selective bibliography on page 12), these risk factors range from neighborhood drug availability to a lack of parental role models and academic failure.

  • Most juvenile gang problems are homegrown. Gang member migration is widespread, but is not the main reason for the nationwide proliferation of gangs. Very few cities with emerging or chronic gang problems reported that their problem was due to migration. In fact, it appears that motivation for migration generally tends to be for social rather than criminal purposes. For example, 39 percent of gang members report that they moved with their families.

  • Gang members account for a disproportionate number of delinquent acts. The studies conducted by the University of Washington and University at Albany, SUNY, found that gang members accounted for two to three times as many acts of delinquency as expected, given their share in the population. The University of Washington study found that gang members (15 percent of the sample) reported committing 58 percent of the delinquent acts overall and more than half of the minor assaults, minor thefts, drug trafficking, and property crimes. The University at Albany, SUNY, study found that 30 percent of the sample were gang members, who accounted for 65 percent of the reported delinquent acts overall.

  • Gang members account for a greater number of more serious crimes. Gang members commit serious and violent offenses at a rate several times higher than nongang adolescents. The University of Washington study found that juveniles in gangs reported committing violent offenses (assault, fighting, and robbery) five times as often as nongang juveniles. The University at Albany, SUNY, study found gang members committed three times as many serious and violent offenses as nongang juveniles. Studies also showed that the influence of the gang on levels of juvenile violence is greater than the influence of other highly delinquent peers.

  • Substance abuse, drug trafficking, and gang membership appear to be related. The University at Albany, SUNY, study found that the 30 percent who reported being gang members accounted for 70 percent of the drug sales. In addition, they reported 63 percent of the instances of alcohol use and 61 percent of the instances of other drug use in this sample. In Washington, researchers also found that drug use and trafficking rates remained nearly as high after members left the gang as when they were active in it.

What Does This Mean?

  • Gang activity is no longer just a big city problem. Communities in rural areas need to be aware of indicators of gang activity and seriously assess their own gang problems. OJJDP is responding to this issue with the Rural Gang Initiative. Four rural sites have been selected to conduct a 1-year assessment of their gang problem and to develop a local strategy for application of OJJDP's Comprehensive Community-Wide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression (see page 25). The Research Division is funding a national evaluator to conduct case studies and assist with evaluation planning.

  • More programs must be established to reduce crime and target gangs and gang members. Efforts to reduce the overall level of crime in society will not work unless those efforts include effective gang prevention, intervention, and suppression programs.

  • Communities need to take a localized, yet comprehensive approach in assessing their gang problem and developing strategies and solutions. Every community has factors that make the youth gang problem unique to that jurisdiction. Learning about these factors requires involvement by all elements of the community. The Comprehensive Community-Wide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression emphasizes five strategies that communities should focus on to address gang activity and membership: community mobilization, social intervention, opportunities provision, suppression, and organizational change and development. These five strategies, and the current evaluation being conducted in five cities, are detailed on page 25. Part of this comprehensive approach is understanding that "homegrown" risk factors are more likely sources of gang formation or expansion than is gang migration. Communities need to look at their local situation to understand the nature of the gang problem.

Selective Bibliography of OJJDP's Research on Gangs

Battin-Pearson, S.R., Thornberry, T.P., Hawkins, J.D., and Krohn, M.D. 1998. Gang Membership, Delinquent Peers, and Delinquent Behavior. Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Howell, J.C. 1998. Youth Gangs: An Overview. Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Howell, J.C., and Decker, S.H. 1999. The Youth Gangs, Drugs, and Violence Connection. Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Maxson, C.L. 1998. Gang Members on the Move. Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Moore, J.P., and Terrett, C.P. 1999. Highlights of the 1997 National Youth Gang Survey. Fact Sheet #97. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Thornberry, T.P., and Burch, J.H., II. 1997. Gang Members and Delinquent Behavior. Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Youth Gang Series

Critical information on gangs is available to the public through OJJDP's Youth Gang Series of Bulletins. To receive copies of past issues or request future issues, contact the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse at 800-638-8736.

  • Youth Gangs: An Overview, by James C. Howell (August 1998).

  • Gang Members on the Move, by Cheryl L. Maxson (October 1998).

  • Gang Membership, Delinquent Peers, and Delinquent Behavior, by Sara R. Battin-Pearson, Terence P. Thornberry, J. David Hawkins, and Marvin D. Krohn (October 1998).

  • The Youth Gangs, Drugs, and Violence Connection, by James C. Howell and Scott H. Decker (January 1999).

Other gang-related OJJDP publications include:

  • Highlights of the 1997 National Youth Gang Survey, by John P. Moore and Craig P. Terrett (March 1999).

  • Youth Gang Programs and Strategies (in press).

  • 1996 National Youth Gang Survey (July 1999).

OJJDP Research: Making a Difference for Juveniles August 1999