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Youth Gangs — an overview (OJJDP)

Youth Gangs — an overview (OJJDP)

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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Justice Programs
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Shay Bilchik, Administrator 
 
From the Administrator 
Despite recent declines in juvenilecrime, our Nation continues to facea youth gang problem. As part of ourresponse to public concern about thisproblem, OJJDP has initiated theYouth Gang Series to explore keyissues related to youth gangs. Theseissues include gang migration, female
involvement with gangs, and the growth
of gang activity related to homicide,drugs, and overall delinquency.
Youth Gangs: An Overview,
the initialBulletin in this series, brings togetheravailable knowledge on youth gangsby reviewing data and research.The author begins with a look atthe history of youth gangs and theirdemographic characteristics. Hethen assesses the scope of theyouth gang problem, including gangproblems in juvenile detention andcorrectional facilities. A review ofgang studies provides a clearerunderstanding of several issues.An extensive list of references isalso included for further review.The Bulletin makes a clear statementthat a successful gang interventionand suppression strategy must buildon services already in place in ourcommunities to develop a compre-hensive approach that will enhancethe capacity of the juvenile justicesystem. The information providedhere and in subsequent titles of thisseries will serve as a good startingpoint toward that end.Shay BilchikAdministrator
August 1998
FPO
Youth Gangs:An Overview
James C. Howell
The proliferation of youth gangs since1980 has fueled the public’s fear and mag- nified possible misconceptions about youth gangs. To address the mounting concernabout youth gangs, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)has initiated the Youth Gang Series to delveinto
 
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 wholive in the presence of youth gangs. This Bulletin, the first in the series, provides anoverview of the problems that youth gangs pose, pinpoints the differences between youth gangs and adult criminal organiza- tions, examines the risk factors that lead to youth gang membership, and presents promising strategies being used to curb youth gang involvement.
Introduction
The United States has seen rapid prolif-eration of youth gangs
1
since 1980. Duringthis period, the number of cities with gangproblems increased from an estimated 286jurisdictions with more than 2,000 gangsand nearly 100,000 gang members in 1980(Miller, 1992) to about 4,800 jurisdictionswith more than 31,000 gangs and approxi-mately 846,000 gang members in 1996(Moore and Terrett, in press).
2
An 11-citysurvey of eighth graders found that 9percent were currently gang members,and 17 percent said they had belongedtoa gang at some point in their lives(Esbensen and Osgood, 1997).Other studies reported comparablepercentages and also showed that gangmembers were responsible for a largeproportion of violent offenses. In the Roch-ester site of the OJJDP-funded Program ofResearch on the Causes and Correlates ofDelinquency, gang members (30 percentofthe sample) self-reported committing
1
This overview relies on definitions of the term“youth gang” offered by the leading gang theorists andresearchers. For the purposes of this review, a groupmust be involved in a pattern of criminal acts to be con-sidered a youth gang. These groups are typically com-posed only of juveniles, but may include young adults intheir membership. Prison gangs, ideological gangs, hategroups, and motorcycle gangs are not included. Likewise,gangs whose membership is restricted to adults and thatdo not have the characteristics of youth gangs are ex-cluded (see Curry and Decker, 1998).
Unless otherwisenoted, the term “gangs” refers to youth gangs.
2
Sheriff’s departments were asked to report data onlyon unincorporated areas in an effort to reduce redun-dancies. Respondents were allowed to use their owndefinition 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] responsiblepersons in the [respondent’s] agency or community arewilling to identify or classify as a ‘gang’.” Motorcyclegangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, and adultgangs were excluded. See Moore (1997) and NationalYouth Gang Center (1997) for results of the 1995 Na-tional Youth Gang Survey.
 
2
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).
DemographicCharacteristics
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,
3
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.
4
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
3
Hispanic (Spanish-speaking) ethnic groups includeMexicans, Mexican-Americans, Latinos, and PuertoRicans.
4
Percentages total to 101 due to rounding.
 
3
populations, the more gangs.” Spergel(1995:60) agrees, but with an importantcaveat: “Contemporary youth gangs arelocated primarily in lower-class, slum,ghetto, barrio, or working-class changingcommunities, but it is not clear that eitherclass, poverty, culture, race or ethnicity,or social change per se primarily accounts[
sic
] for gang problems.” Spergel’s obser-vation appears to be correct, becausegangs have recently become much moreprevalent in rural counties, small cities,and towns (Moore and Terrett, in press),for reasons that are not well understood.
Gang Specialization
Certain offenses are related to differentracial/ethnic youth gangs. African-Americangangs are relatively more involved in drugoffenses; Hispanic gangs, in “turf-related”violence; Asian and white gangs, in prop-erty crimes (Block et al., 1996; Spergel,1990). Numerous ethnographic studieshave provided excellent descriptions ofHispanic gangs in Los Angeles. They tendto be structured around age-based cohorts,based in a specific territory (barrio), andcharacterized by fighting (Moore, Vigil, andGarcia, 1983). The gang provides family-likerelationships for adolescents who feelisolated, drifting between their native andadopted cultures and feeling alienated fromboth (Vigil, 1990a, 1990b; Vigil and Long,1990). Hispanic gangs have strong links tothe neighborhood, or barrio, which tiethem to the larger culture (Moore, 1978);much of their violence is related to defenseof neighborhood turf. In contrast, African-American gangs in large cities tend to re-place traditional social networks thatlinked youth with legitimate work opportu-nities (Anderson, 1990). Thus, these gangstend to be involved in entrepreneurialactivities more than other ethnic/racialgangs and may evolve from “scavenger”groups to turf gangs and drug-traffickinggangs (Taylor, 1989).Use of violence to protect the neigh-borhood, or gang turf, from rival gangs isalso a predominant goal in Chicago (Blockand Block, 1993), San Diego (Pennell etal., 1994), and St. Louis (Decker and VanWinkle, 1996). Violence is rarely plannedand generally occurs spontaneouslyamong gangs (Decker and Van Winkle,1996; Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Pennell etal., 1994) in response to a wide variety ofsituations (Horowitz and Schwartz, 1974;Sanders, 1994).Numerous ways of classifying gangsother than by ethnicity have been devised(Spergel, 1995), although the gangs’ com-plexity, variations, and changing structurepractically defy static categories. One wayof viewing gangs is along a continuum ofdegree of organization (Gordon, 1994),from youth groups who hang out togetherin shopping malls and other places; tocriminal groups, small clusters of friendswho band together to commit crimes suchas fencing operations; to street gangscomposed of groups of adolescents andyoung adults who form a semistructuredoperation and engage in delinquent andcriminal behavior; to adult criminal organi-zations that engage in criminal activityprimarily for economic reasons. The latter,also called criminal gangs, are not consid-ered youth gangs. Distinguishing amongthese various forms of gangs is often noteasy; in some areas, groups may evolvefrom less formal to more formal organiza-tions along this continuum.
Female Gang Delinquency
Data on the number of female youthgang members have not yet been gath-ered nationwide; however, several esti-mates are available. Miller (1992)estimated that approximately 10 percentof gang members were females. Amonglaw enforcement agencies that reportedmale and female membership data in a1992 survey, gang membership was esti-mated to be nearly 6 percent female(Curry, 1995b). In their 11-city survey ofeighth graders, Esbensen and Osgood(1997) report that 38 percent of the stu-dents who said they were gang memberswere females. Recent studies of largeadolescent samples in urban areas, fundedthrough OJJDP’s Program of Research onthe Causes and Correlates of Delinquency,report that female membership is higherin early adolescence (Bjerregaard andSmith, 1993; Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993).Among all adolescents, female involve-ment may be increasing proportionallywith male gang involvement (Klein, 1995).Surveys have been incapable of measur-ing these changes nationwide becausedata and information systems at the locallevel are inadequate. Nevertheless, theseand other studies of urban samples(Fagan, 1990; Winfree et al., 1992) suggestgrowing involvement of females in gangsconcomitant with gang proliferation.Are independent female gangs increas-ing? The initial survey of cities with gangproblems indicates that by far the mostcommon female gangs are auxiliary gangsaffiliated with male gangs (Miller, 1975).Subsequent surveys suggest an increasein independent female gangs (Curry, Ball,and Decker, 1996; Curry, 1995a, 1995b;National Drug Intelligence Center, 1995).However, Moore (1991:41) suggests that“the general notion that gang girls havemoved away from . . . ‘traditional [auxil-iary] roles’ must be taken with a grainof salt.” Based on her review of gang re-search, Chesney-Lind (1993) contendsthat there is little evidence to support thenotion of a new breed of violent femalegangsters breaking into this historicallymale-dominated phenomenon.Are female gang members becominginvolved in more serious and violentoffending? This question cannot beanswered definitively because nationaltrend data are not available. Chicagodataon gang-related offenses during the30-year period from 1965 to 1994 showthat females represented only 5 percentof victims and 1 percent of offenders(Block et al., 1996). Female gang violencewas more likely to involve simple batteryor assault rather than homicide, andfemale nonviolent crimes consistedmainly of liquor law violations.In the OJJDP-funded Causes andCorrelates study site of Denver, Esbensenand Huizinga (1993) found that delinquentbehavior was much more prevalent amongfemale gang members than nongangfemales. However, incidence rates werenot significantly higher. In Rochester,another Causes and Correlates study site,Bjerregaard and Smith (1993) also foundthat female gang members were signifi-cantly more likely to engage in seriousdelinquency than nongang females. How-ever, in contrast to Denver, the incidencerates in Rochester in every offense cat-egory were significantly higher amongfemale gang members than among non-gang females. Fagan (1990) also foundhigh levels of involvement in seriousdelinquency among female gang membersin Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego.Prevalence rates in all behavior catego-ries, including violent offenses, werehigher among female gang members thanamong nongang males.
Scope of the Problem
Assessing the scope of the youth gangproblem in the United States is difficult.No consensus exists on what constitutesa youth gang. Many jurisdictions deny theexistence of gangs. Others incorrectly,many experts believe, characterize lessserious forms of adolescent law-violatinggroups as gangs (Miller, 1992). Some callgangs by other names, such as “crews” or

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