68percent of all violent offenses(Thornberry, 1998). In the Denver site,adolescent gang members (14 percent ofthe sample) self-reported committing 89percent of all serious violent offenses(Huizinga, 1997). In another study, sup-ported by OJJDP and several other agen-cies and organizations, adolescent gangmembers in Seattle (15 percent of thesample) self-reported involvement in 85percent of robberies committed by theentire sample (Battin et al., 1998).This Bulletin reviews data and re-search to consolidate available knowl-edge on youth gangs that are involved incriminal activity. Following a historicalperspective, demographic information ispresented. The scope of the problem isassessed, including gang problems injuvenile detention and correctional facili-ties. Several issues are then addressedbyreviewing gang studies to provide aclearer understanding of youth gang prob-lems. An extensive list of references isprovided for further review.
History of Youth Gangs
Youth gangs may have first appeared inEurope (Klein, 1996) or Mexico (Redfield,1941; Rubel, 1965). No one is sure whenor why they emerged in the United States.The earliest record of their appearance inthe United States may have been as earlyas1783, as the American Revolution ended(Sante, 1991; Sheldon, 1898). They mayhave emerged spontaneously fromadolescent play groups or as a collectiveresponse to urban conditions in thiscountry (Thrasher, 1927). Some suggestthey first emerged following the Mexicanmigration tothe Southwest after the Mexi-can Revolution in 1813 (Redfield, 1941;Rubel, 1965). They may have grown out ofdifficulties Mexican youth encountered withsocial and cultural adjustment to the Ameri-can way of life under extremely poor condi-tions in the Southwest (Moore, 1978; Vigil,1988). Gangs appear to have spread in NewEngland in the early 1800’s as the IndustrialRevolution gained momentum in the firstlarge cities in the United States: New York,Boston, and Philadelphia (Finestone, 1976;Sante, 1991; Spergel, 1995).Gangs began to flourish in Chicago andother large cities during the industrial era,when immigration and population shiftsreached peak levels (Finestone, 1976). Earlyin American history, gangs seem to havebeen most visible and most violent duringperiods of rapid population shifts. Theirevolution has been characterized by anebb and flow pattern that “at any giventime more closely resembles that of, say,influenza rather than blindness,” as Miller(1992:51) has observed. The United Stateshas seen four distinct periods of ganggrowth and peak activity: the late 1800’s,the 1920’s, the 1960’s, and the 1990’s (Curryand Decker, 1998). Gang proliferation, inother words, is not a constant.In the modern era, youth gangs havebeen influenced by several trends. In the1970’s and 1980’s, because of increasedmobility and access to more lethal weap-ons, many gangs became more dangerous(Klein, 1995; Klein and Maxson, 1989; Miller,1974, 1992; Spergel, 1995). Gang fightspreviously involving fists or brass knucklesincreasingly involved guns. The growingavailability of automobiles, coupled withthe use of more lethal weapons, fueledthe growth of drive-by shootings, a tacticthat previously took the form of on-foothit-and-run forays (Miller, 1966). Gangs ofthe 1980’s and 1990’s seem to have bothmore younger and more older membersthan before (Miller, 1992; Spergel, 1995),more members with prison records or tiesto prison inmates (Hagedorn, 1988; Miller,1992; Moore, 1990; Vigil, 1988), and moreweapons of greater lethality (Block andBlock, 1993; Miller, 1992; National DrugIntelligence Center, 1995). They are lessconcerned with territorial affiliations(Fagan, 1990; Klein, 1995), use alcohol anddrugs more extensively (Decker and VanWinkle, 1996; Fagan, 1990; Thornberry,1998), and are more involved in drug traf-ficking (Battin et al., 1998; Fagan, 1990;Miller, 1992; Taylor, 1989; Thornberry, 1998).Some youth gangs appear to have beentransformed into entrepreneurial organiza-tions by the crack cocaine epidemicthatbegan in the mid-1980’s (Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Skolnick et al., 1988;Taylor, 1989). However, the extent to whichthey have become drug-trafficking organi-zations is unclear (Howell and Decker,in press). Some youth groups, many ofwhich are not considered bona fide gangs,are not seriously involved in illegal activi-ties and provide mainly social opportuni-ties for their membership (Fagan, 1989;Vigil, 1988). Some gangs seldom use drugsand alcohol, and some have close commu-nity ties (Fagan, 1989; Sanchez-Jankowski,1991; Vigil, 1988).
The average age of youth gang mem-bers is about 17 to 18 years (Curry andDecker, 1998), but tends to be older incities in which gangs have been in exist-ence longer, like Chicago and Los Ange-les (Bobrowski, 1988; California AttorneyGeneral’s Gang Unit, 1996; Klein, 1995;Spergel, 1995). The typical age range is12 to 24. Although younger members arebecoming more common, it is the oldermembership that has increased the most(Hagedorn, 1988; Moore, 1990; Spergel,1995). Male gang members outnumberfemales by a wide margin (Miller, 1992;Moore, 1978), and this span is greater inlate adolescence than in early adoles-cence (Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993;Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Moore andHagedorn, 1996). Gangs vary in size bytype of gang. Traditional (large, enduring,territorial) gangs average about 180 mem-bers, whereas specialty (e.g., drug traf-ficking) gangs average only about 25members (Klein and Maxson, 1996). Inlarge cities, some gangs number in thethousands and even tens of thousands(Block and Block, 1993; Spergel, 1995).In the early 19th century, youth gangsin the United States were primarily Irish,Jewish, and Italian (Haskins, 1974; Sante,1991). According to a recent national lawenforcement survey, the ethnicity of gangmembers is 48 percent African-American,43 percent Hispanic,
5 percent white, and4 percent Asian (Curry, 1996). However,student surveys show a much larger rep-resentation of white adolescents amonggang members. In a survey of nearly 6,000eighth graders in 11 sites (Esbensen andOsgood, 1997), 31 percent of the studentswho said they were gang members wereAfrican-American, 25 percent were His-panic, 25 percent were white, 5 percentwere Asian, and 15 percent were of otherracial and ethnic groups.
Bursik andGrasmick (1993) point out that, despitethe disproportionate representation ofminority group members in studies ascompared with white youth, “blacks andHispanics have no special predispositionto gang membership. Rather, they simplyare overrepresented in those areas mostlikely to lead to gang activity.”Miller (1974:220) notes that “observersof any given period tend to relate thecharacteristics of gangs to those of theparticular ethnic groups prominent in theurban lower class during that period . . . ,roughly, the more prevalent the lower-class
Hispanic (Spanish-speaking) ethnic groups includeMexicans, Mexican-Americans, Latinos, and PuertoRicans.
Percentages total to 101 due to rounding.