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Department of Justice RT


Office of Justice Programs





Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention J US T I C E P

Shay Bilchik, Administrator August 1998

Youth Gangs: From the Administrator

An Overview Despite recent declines in juvenile
crime, our Nation continues to face
a youth gang problem. As part of our
response to public concern about this
problem, OJJDP has initiated the
Youth Gang Series to explore key
issues related to youth gangs. These
James C. Howell
issues include gang migration, female
The proliferation of youth gangs since percent were currently gang members, involvement with gangs, and the growth
1980 has fueled the public’s fear and mag- and 17 percent said they had belonged of gang activity related to homicide,
nified possible misconceptions about youth to a gang at some point in their lives drugs, and overall delinquency.
gangs. To address the mounting concern (Esbensen and Osgood, 1997). Youth Gangs: An Overview, the initial
about youth gangs, the Office of Juvenile Other studies reported comparable Bulletin in this series, brings together
Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) percentages and also showed that gang available knowledge on youth gangs
has initiated the Youth Gang Series to delve members were responsible for a large by reviewing data and research.
into many of the key issues related to youth proportion of violent offenses. In the Roch- The author begins with a look at
gangs. These issues include gang migration, ester site of the OJJDP-funded Program of the history of youth gangs and their
gang growth, female involvement with Research on the Causes and Correlates of demographic characteristics. He
gangs, homicide, drugs and violence, and Delinquency, gang members (30 percent then assesses the scope of the
the needs of communities and youth who of the sample) self-reported committing youth gang problem, including gang
live in the presence of youth gangs. This problems in juvenile detention and
Bulletin, the first in the series, provides an correctional facilities. A review of
overview of the problems that youth gangs 1
This overview relies on definitions of the term
gang studies provides a clearer
pose, pinpoints the differences between “youth gang” offered by the leading gang theorists and
researchers. For the purposes of this review, a group understanding of several issues.
youth gangs and adult criminal organiza- An extensive list of references is
must be involved in a pattern of criminal acts to be con-
tions, examines the risk factors that lead sidered a youth gang. These groups are typically com- also included for further review.
to youth gang membership, and presents posed only of juveniles, but may include young adults in
promising strategies being used to curb their membership. Prison gangs, ideological gangs, hate The Bulletin makes a clear statement
youth gang involvement. groups, and motorcycle gangs are not included. Likewise, that a successful gang intervention
gangs whose membership is restricted to adults and that and suppression strategy must build
do not have the characteristics of youth gangs are ex- on services already in place in our
Introduction cluded (see Curry and Decker, 1998). Unless otherwise
communities to develop a compre-
noted, the term “gangs” refers to youth gangs.
The United States has seen rapid prolif- hensive approach that will enhance
eration of youth gangs1 since 1980. During Sheriff’s departments were asked to report data only the capacity of the juvenile justice
on unincorporated areas in an effort to reduce redun-
this period, the number of cities with gang dancies. Respondents were allowed to use their own
system. The information provided
problems increased from an estimated 286 definition of a gang, with the guidance that “youth gang” here and in subsequent titles of this
jurisdictions with more than 2,000 gangs
and nearly 100,000 gang members in 1980
(Miller, 1992) to about 4,800 jurisdictions
with more than 31,000 gangs and approxi-
was defined as “a group of youths in the [respondent’s]
jurisdiction that the [respondent or other] responsible
persons in the [respondent’s] agency or community are
willing to identify or classify as a ‘gang’.” Motorcycle
series will serve as a good starting
point toward that end.
Shay Bilchik
mately 846,000 gang members in 1996
gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, and adult Administrator
gangs were excluded. See Moore (1997) and National
(Moore and Terrett, in press).2 An 11-city Youth Gang Center (1997) for results of the 1995 Na-
survey of eighth graders found that 9 tional Youth Gang Survey.
68 percent of all violent offenses ebb and flow pattern that “at any given Decker, 1998), but tends to be older in
(Thornberry, 1998). In the Denver site, time more closely resembles that of, say, cities in which gangs have been in exist-
adolescent gang members (14 percent of influenza rather than blindness,” as Miller ence longer, like Chicago and Los Ange-
the sample) self-reported committing 89 (1992:51) has observed. The United States les (Bobrowski, 1988; California Attorney
percent of all serious violent offenses has seen four distinct periods of gang General’s Gang Unit, 1996; Klein, 1995;
(Huizinga, 1997). In another study, sup- growth and peak activity: the late 1800’s, Spergel, 1995). The typical age range is
ported by OJJDP and several other agen- the 1920’s, the 1960’s, and the 1990’s (Curry 12 to 24. Although younger members are
cies and organizations, adolescent gang and Decker, 1998). Gang proliferation, in becoming more common, it is the older
members in Seattle (15 percent of the other words, is not a constant. membership that has increased the most
sample) self-reported involvement in 85 In the modern era, youth gangs have (Hagedorn, 1988; Moore, 1990; Spergel,
percent of robberies committed by the been influenced by several trends. In the 1995). Male gang members outnumber
entire sample (Battin et al., 1998). 1970’s and 1980’s, because of increased females by a wide margin (Miller, 1992;
This Bulletin reviews data and re- mobility and access to more lethal weap- Moore, 1978), and this span is greater in
search to consolidate available knowl- ons, many gangs became more dangerous late adolescence than in early adoles-
edge on youth gangs that are involved in (Klein, 1995; Klein and Maxson, 1989; Miller, cence (Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993;
criminal activity. Following a historical 1974, 1992; Spergel, 1995). Gang fights Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Moore and
perspective, demographic information is previously involving fists or brass knuckles Hagedorn, 1996). Gangs vary in size by
presented. The scope of the problem is increasingly involved guns. The growing type of gang. Traditional (large, enduring,
assessed, including gang problems in availability of automobiles, coupled with territorial) gangs average about 180 mem-
juvenile detention and correctional facili- the use of more lethal weapons, fueled bers, whereas specialty (e.g., drug traf-
ties. Several issues are then addressed the growth of drive-by shootings, a tactic ficking) gangs average only about 25
by reviewing gang studies to provide a that previously took the form of on-foot members (Klein and Maxson, 1996). In
clearer understanding of youth gang prob- hit-and-run forays (Miller, 1966). Gangs of large cities, some gangs number in the
lems. An extensive list of references is the 1980’s and 1990’s seem to have both thousands and even tens of thousands
provided for further review. more younger and more older members (Block and Block, 1993; Spergel, 1995).
than before (Miller, 1992; Spergel, 1995), In the early 19th century, youth gangs
more members with prison records or ties in the United States were primarily Irish,
History of Youth Gangs to prison inmates (Hagedorn, 1988; Miller, Jewish, and Italian (Haskins, 1974; Sante,
Youth gangs may have first appeared in 1992; Moore, 1990; Vigil, 1988), and more 1991). According to a recent national law
Europe (Klein, 1996) or Mexico (Redfield, weapons of greater lethality (Block and enforcement survey, the ethnicity of gang
1941; Rubel, 1965). No one is sure when Block, 1993; Miller, 1992; National Drug members is 48 percent African-American,
or why they emerged in the United States. Intelligence Center, 1995). They are less 43 percent Hispanic,3 5 percent white, and
The earliest record of their appearance in concerned with territorial affiliations 4 percent Asian (Curry, 1996). However,
the United States may have been as early (Fagan, 1990; Klein, 1995), use alcohol and student surveys show a much larger rep-
as 1783, as the American Revolution ended drugs more extensively (Decker and Van resentation of white adolescents among
(Sante, 1991; Sheldon, 1898). They may Winkle, 1996; Fagan, 1990; Thornberry, gang members. In a survey of nearly 6,000
have emerged spontaneously from 1998), and are more involved in drug traf- eighth graders in 11 sites (Esbensen and
adolescent play groups or as a collective ficking (Battin et al., 1998; Fagan, 1990; Osgood, 1997), 31 percent of the students
response to urban conditions in this Miller, 1992; Taylor, 1989; Thornberry, 1998). who said they were gang members were
country (Thrasher, 1927). Some suggest African-American, 25 percent were His-
Some youth gangs appear to have been
they first emerged following the Mexican panic, 25 percent were white, 5 percent
transformed into entrepreneurial organiza-
migration to the Southwest after the Mexi- were Asian, and 15 percent were of other
tions by the crack cocaine epidemic
can Revolution in 1813 (Redfield, 1941; racial and ethnic groups.4 Bursik and
that began in the mid-1980’s (Sanchez-
Rubel, 1965). They may have grown out of Grasmick (1993) point out that, despite
Jankowski, 1991; Skolnick et al., 1988;
difficulties Mexican youth encountered with the disproportionate representation of
Taylor, 1989). However, the extent to which
social and cultural adjustment to the Ameri- minority group members in studies as
they have become drug-trafficking organi-
can way of life under extremely poor condi- compared with white youth, “blacks and
zations is unclear (Howell and Decker,
tions in the Southwest (Moore, 1978; Vigil, Hispanics have no special predisposition
in press). Some youth groups, many of
1988). Gangs appear to have spread in New to gang membership. Rather, they simply
which are not considered bona fide gangs,
England in the early 1800’s as the Industrial are overrepresented in those areas most
are not seriously involved in illegal activi-
Revolution gained momentum in the first likely to lead to gang activity.”
ties and provide mainly social opportuni-
large cities in the United States: New York,
ties for their membership (Fagan, 1989; Miller (1974:220) notes that “observers
Boston, and Philadelphia (Finestone, 1976;
Vigil, 1988). Some gangs seldom use drugs of any given period tend to relate the
Sante, 1991; Spergel, 1995).
and alcohol, and some have close commu- characteristics of gangs to those of the
Gangs began to flourish in Chicago and nity ties (Fagan, 1989; Sanchez-Jankowski, particular ethnic groups prominent in the
other large cities during the industrial era, 1991; Vigil, 1988). urban lower class during that period . . . ,
when immigration and population shifts roughly, the more prevalent the lower-class
reached peak levels (Finestone, 1976). Early
in American history, gangs seem to have Demographic
been most visible and most violent during Characteristics 3
Hispanic (Spanish-speaking) ethnic groups include
Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Latinos, and Puerto
periods of rapid population shifts. Their The average age of youth gang mem- Ricans.
evolution has been characterized by an bers is about 17 to 18 years (Curry and 4
Percentages total to 101 due to rounding.

populations, the more gangs.” Spergel plexity, variations, and changing structure and Decker, 1996; Curry, 1995a, 1995b;
(1995:60) agrees, but with an important practically defy static categories. One way National Drug Intelligence Center, 1995).
caveat: “Contemporary youth gangs are of viewing gangs is along a continuum of However, Moore (1991:41) suggests that
located primarily in lower-class, slum, degree of organization (Gordon, 1994), “the general notion that gang girls have
ghetto, barrio, or working-class changing from youth groups who hang out together moved away from . . . ‘traditional [auxil-
communities, but it is not clear that either in shopping malls and other places; to iary] roles’ must be taken with a grain
class, poverty, culture, race or ethnicity, criminal groups, small clusters of friends of salt.” Based on her review of gang re-
or social change per se primarily accounts who band together to commit crimes such search, Chesney-Lind (1993) contends
[sic] for gang problems.” Spergel’s obser- as fencing operations; to street gangs that there is little evidence to support the
vation appears to be correct, because composed of groups of adolescents and notion of a new breed of violent female
gangs have recently become much more young adults who form a semistructured gangsters breaking into this historically
prevalent in rural counties, small cities, operation and engage in delinquent and male-dominated phenomenon.
and towns (Moore and Terrett, in press), criminal behavior; to adult criminal organi- Are female gang members becoming
for reasons that are not well understood. zations that engage in criminal activity involved in more serious and violent
primarily for economic reasons. The latter, offending? This question cannot be
Gang Specialization also called criminal gangs, are not consid- answered definitively because national
Certain offenses are related to different ered youth gangs. Distinguishing among trend data are not available. Chicago
racial/ethnic youth gangs. African-American these various forms of gangs is often not data on gang-related offenses during the
gangs are relatively more involved in drug easy; in some areas, groups may evolve 30-year period from 1965 to 1994 show
offenses; Hispanic gangs, in “turf-related” from less formal to more formal organiza- that females represented only 5 percent
violence; Asian and white gangs, in prop- tions along this continuum. of victims and 1 percent of offenders
erty crimes (Block et al., 1996; Spergel, (Block et al., 1996). Female gang violence
1990). Numerous ethnographic studies Female Gang Delinquency was more likely to involve simple battery
have provided excellent descriptions of Data on the number of female youth or assault rather than homicide, and
Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles. They tend gang members have not yet been gath- female nonviolent crimes consisted
to be structured around age-based cohorts, ered nationwide; however, several esti- mainly of liquor law violations.
based in a specific territory (barrio), and mates are available. Miller (1992) In the OJJDP-funded Causes and
characterized by fighting (Moore, Vigil, and estimated that approximately 10 percent
Correlates study site of Denver, Esbensen
Garcia, 1983). The gang provides family-like of gang members were females. Among and Huizinga (1993) found that delinquent
relationships for adolescents who feel law enforcement agencies that reported
behavior was much more prevalent among
isolated, drifting between their native and male and female membership data in a
female gang members than nongang
adopted cultures and feeling alienated from 1992 survey, gang membership was esti- females. However, incidence rates were
both (Vigil, 1990a, 1990b; Vigil and Long, mated to be nearly 6 percent female
not significantly higher. In Rochester,
1990). Hispanic gangs have strong links to (Curry, 1995b). In their 11-city survey of another Causes and Correlates study site,
the neighborhood, or barrio, which tie eighth graders, Esbensen and Osgood
Bjerregaard and Smith (1993) also found
them to the larger culture (Moore, 1978); (1997) report that 38 percent of the stu- that female gang members were signifi-
much of their violence is related to defense dents who said they were gang members
cantly more likely to engage in serious
of neighborhood turf. In contrast, African- were females. Recent studies of large delinquency than nongang females. How-
American gangs in large cities tend to re- adolescent samples in urban areas, funded
ever, in contrast to Denver, the incidence
place traditional social networks that through OJJDP’s Program of Research on rates in Rochester in every offense cat-
linked youth with legitimate work opportu- the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency,
egory were significantly higher among
nities (Anderson, 1990). Thus, these gangs report that female membership is higher female gang members than among non-
tend to be involved in entrepreneurial in early adolescence (Bjerregaard and
gang females. Fagan (1990) also found
activities more than other ethnic/racial Smith, 1993; Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993). high levels of involvement in serious
gangs and may evolve from “scavenger” Among all adolescents, female involve-
delinquency among female gang members
groups to turf gangs and drug-trafficking ment may be increasing proportionally in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
gangs (Taylor, 1989). with male gang involvement (Klein, 1995).
Prevalence rates in all behavior catego-
Use of violence to protect the neigh- Surveys have been incapable of measur- ries, including violent offenses, were
borhood, or gang turf, from rival gangs is ing these changes nationwide because
higher among female gang members than
also a predominant goal in Chicago (Block data and information systems at the local among nongang males.
and Block, 1993), San Diego (Pennell et level are inadequate. Nevertheless, these
al., 1994), and St. Louis (Decker and Van and other studies of urban samples
Winkle, 1996). Violence is rarely planned (Fagan, 1990; Winfree et al., 1992) suggest Scope of the Problem
and generally occurs spontaneously growing involvement of females in gangs Assessing the scope of the youth gang
among gangs (Decker and Van Winkle, concomitant with gang proliferation. problem in the United States is difficult.
1996; Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Pennell et Are independent female gangs increas- No consensus exists on what constitutes
al., 1994) in response to a wide variety of ing? The initial survey of cities with gang a youth gang. Many jurisdictions deny the
situations (Horowitz and Schwartz, 1974; problems indicates that by far the most existence of gangs. Others incorrectly,
Sanders, 1994). common female gangs are auxiliary gangs many experts believe, characterize less
affiliated with male gangs (Miller, 1975). serious forms of adolescent law-violating
Numerous ways of classifying gangs
Subsequent surveys suggest an increase groups as gangs (Miller, 1992). Some call
other than by ethnicity have been devised
in independent female gangs (Curry, Ball, gangs by other names, such as “crews” or
(Spergel, 1995), although the gangs’ com-

“posses,” although some of these are not thirds of all gang-motivated crimes and for than nongang members to have possessed
bona fide gangs; rather, they are special- more than half of the city’s gang-motivated guns: 81 percent of gang and quasi-gang
ized groups engaged in predatory crimes homicides (Block and Block, 1993). Police members owned a revolver, and about
or drug trafficking (Miller, 1992). It ap- in Los Angeles estimate that the city has three-fourths owned an automatic or
pears that communities are likely to label more than 58,000 gang members (National semiautomatic handgun. Eighty-four
troublesome adolescent groups as gangs Youth Gang Center, 1997), making it the percent of the inmates said they carried
if the public perceives them to be a prob- U.S. city with the most gang members. a gun at least “now and then” in the year
lem (Miller, 1992). Although youth gang or two before being incarcerated, and 55
definitions vary, most include the follow- Gang Problems in Juvenile percent said “all” or “most of the time.”
ing elements: a self-formed group, united Detention and Correctional Gangs clearly present significant prob-
by mutual interests, that controls a par- Facilities lems in juvenile detention and correc-
ticular territory, facility, or enterprise; tional facilities. There is evidence that, in
Three surveys have assessed youth
uses symbols in communications; and is addition to contributing to institutional
gang problems in juvenile detention and
collectively involved in crime (Curry and violence, gangs form in these facilities
correctional facilities. The OJJDP-funded
Decker, 1998; Miller, 1992). and recruit members there (Moore, Vigil,
Conditions of Confinement: Juvenile
Detention and Corrections Facilities study and Garcia, 1983). The formation of gangs
Youth Gang Proliferation probably is related to inmates’ need for
(Parent et al., 1994) included a survey of
Few systematic data are collected all detention and correctional facility protection from other inmates. The Chi-
routinely on youth gangs at the city or administrators. Administrators in deten- cago Vice Lords originated in the Illinois
county level, with the exception of a few tion centers and training schools were State Training School for Boys when sev-
gang information systems. In the past, asked to estimate the proportion of con- eral residents decided to form a new gang
intermittent surveys were relied on for fined juveniles who had problems in par- by pooling their affiliations with other
assessing the national scope of the gang ticular areas, including gang involvement. gangs, hoping to form the toughest gang
problem (Curry et al., 1992; Curry, Ball, In both the detention center and training in Chicago (Dawley, 1992; Keiser, 1969).
and Decker, 1996; Klein, 1995; Knox et al., school populations, facility administrators Confinement in a juvenile correctional
1996; Miller, 1975, 1992; Needle and estimated that about 40 percent of the facility is one of the strongest predictors
Stapleton, 1983). In 1996, the National confined youth were involved in gangs of adult prison gang membership (Ralph
Youth Gang Center surveyed more than (Leiter, 1993, cited in Snyder and et al., 1996).
3,000 law enforcement agencies, 87 per- Sickmund, 1995). Programs are needed to break the
cent of which responded, to obtain a more
A 1990 Juvenile Correctional Institu- cycle of street-level youth gang involve-
complete count of jurisdictions with gang
tions Survey (Knox, 1991) found that 160 ment, further involvement in juvenile
problems (Moore and Terrett, in press). detention and correctional facilities and
respondents, more than three-fourths
Almost three-fourths of cities surveyed (78 percent) of responding institutions, prisons, and continued gang involvement
with populations of 25,000 or more re- reported a gang problem for some period in the communities to which former
ported youth gangs in 1996 (Moore and of time. Fifty-two percent of the respond- inmates return.
Terrett, in press). Respondents in large ing institutions reported that more than
cities reported the highest level of gang 10 percent of confined youth were involved
activity (74 percent), followed by subur- in gangs. More than one-third (40 percent)
ban counties (57 percent), small cities (34 reported gang involvement of female
percent), and rural counties (25 percent). inmates. The survey inquired about prob-
Most respondents reported that their gang lems gangs presented in the institutions.
problem began quite recently, with 1994 Assaults on correctional officers were
the most frequently cited year. The aver- reported by 14 percent of respondents;
age year of onset varied with the type of among these, 28 percent reported more
locality: 1989 for large cities, 1990 for sub- than one incident. Of the 150 reported
urban counties, 1992 for small cities, and assaults on correctional officers, 11
1993 for rural counties. Thus, the youth resulted in hospitalization. Approximately
gang problem in this country is substantial one-third of all responding institutions
and affects communities of all sizes. reported one or more incidents in which
Youth gangs are especially widespread violence involving gang members resulted
in certain cities with chronic gang prob- in serious injury.
lems such as Chicago (Block et al., 1996) In a sample of inner-city high schools
and Los Angeles (Klein, 1995). Chicago is and juvenile correctional facilities in 4
said to have about 132 gangs (Block et al., States, Sheley and Wright (1993, 1995)
1996), with an estimated membership of surveyed more than 800 male serious
30,000 to 50,000 hardcore gang members offenders in 6 juvenile correctional facili-
(Chicago Crime Commission, 1995). Mem- ties located near urban areas experienc-
bers of Chicago’s four largest and most ing youth gang problems. Two-thirds
criminally active gangs, the Black Gang- (68 percent) of the inmates self-reported
ster Disciples Nation, the Latin Disciples, affiliation with a gang or a “quasi-gang.”
the Latin Kings, and the Vice Lords, num- Gang members were much more likely
ber about 19,000 and account for two-

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 ac-
count the relevance of gangs and gang
membership in other social settings (per-
sonal 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). Sec-
ond, 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 mem-
bers is linked to elevated offenses.
Much remains to be learned about the service-oriented, high-tech society, re- choice in deciding to join a gang: They see
relationship between gangs and their stricting their access to the labor market, personal advantages to gang membership
neighborhoods or communities. Sanchez- and blocking their upward mobility, creat- (Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991).
Jankowski (1991) identified four factors ing what Glasgow (1980) first called the Social, economic, and cultural forces
that motivate gangs to make concerted underclass (see also Wilson, 1987, 1996). push many adolescents in the direction
efforts to establish ties with the commu- Fagan (1996) describes the underclass’ of gangs. Protection from other gangs and
nity. First, the gang needs a “safe haven.” plight as being permanently excluded perceived general well-being are key fac-
Second, it needs a recruitment pool from from participating in mainstream labor tors (Baccaglini, 1993; Decker and Van
which to draw its membership. Third, the market occupations. As a result, members Winkle, 1996). As noted above, some
community provides the gang with impor- of the underclass must rely on other eco- researchers contend that the “underclass”
tant information (e.g., on gangs in other nomic alternatives: low-paying temporary (Wilson, 1987) status of minority youth
parts of the city). Fourth, the gang needs jobs, part-time jobs in the secondary serves to push them into gangs (Hagedorn,
the community ties for psychological labor market, some form of welfare or 1988; Moore, 1978; Taylor, 1989; Vigil,
reasons: “A bonding occurs between the dependence on friends and relatives, or 1988). Feeling marginal, adolescents join
gang and the community that builds a involvement in drug trafficking and other gangs for social relationships that give
social adhesive that often takes a signifi- profitable street crimes (Moore, 1988). them a sense of identity (Vigil and Long,
cant amount of time to completely dissolve” Several gang researchers (Bursik and 1990). For some youth, gangs provide a
(Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991:201). These Grasmick, 1993; Decker, 1996; Hagedorn, way of solving social adjustment problems,
are important features of youth gangs. 1988; Moore, 1978, 1985; Sullivan 1989; particularly the trials and tribulations of
Sanchez-Jankowski (1991) has argued that Vigil, 1988) have argued that crime, delin- adolescence (Short and Strodtbeck, 1965).
community ambivalence toward gangs quency, gangs, and youth violence have In some communities, youth are intensively
exists because many of the gang members increased in the 1980’s and 1990’s as a recruited or coerced into gangs (Johnstone,
are children of residents, the gangs often result of these postindustrial society 1983). They seemingly have no choice. A
provide protection for residents, residents conditions. few are virtually born into gangs as a
identify with gangs because of their own
result of neighborhood traditions and
or relatives’ prior involvement, and the
gangs in some instances have become
Why Do Youth Join their parents’ earlier (and perhaps con-
Gangs? tinuing) gang participation or involve-
community institutions; personal interests
ment in criminal activity (Moore, 1978).
(fear of too much policing, fear of too Decker and Van Winkle (1996) view join-
much gang activity) also figure in commu- ing youth gangs as consisting of both pulls Risk Factors for Gang
nity perceptions of gangs. and pushes. Pulls pertain to the attractive- Membership
Another reason for ambivalence toward, ness of the gang. Gang membership can
enhance prestige or status among friends Table 1 summarizes risk factors for
or acceptance of, gangs could be the
(Baccaglini, 1993), especially girls (for boys) youth gang membership that have been
changing economy. Recent gang theory
(Decker and Van Winkle, 1996), and provide identified in studies using many types
has focused on the effects of the changing
opportunities to be with them (Slayton, of research methods, including cross-
urban economy on gang-neighborhood
Stephens, and MacKenna, 1993). Gangs sectional, longitudinal, and ethnographic
dynamics (Bursik and Grasmick, 1993).
provide other attractive opportunities such (observational) studies. Examination of
The transition during the 1970’s from a
as the chance for excitement (Pennell et al., this table suggests that the present state
manufacturing to a service-based economy
1994) by selling drugs and making money of knowledge of risk factors for gang
in the United States drastically changed
(Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). Thus, many membership is not refined. Because so
economic conditions, reducing the demand
youth see themselves as making a rational many risk factors have been identified,
for low-skilled workers in an increasingly

Table 1: Risk Factors for Youth Gang Membership
Domain Risk Factors Sources
Community Social disorganization, including poverty Curry and Spergel, 1988
and residential mobility
Organized lowerclass communities Miller, 1958; Moore, 1991
Underclass communities Bursik and Grasmick, 1993; Hagedorn, 1988;
Moore, 1978, 1985, 1988, 1991; Moore, Vigil,
and Garcia, 1983; Sullivan, 1989
Presence of gangs in the neighborhood Curry and Spergel, 1992
Availability of drugs in the neighborhood Curry and Spergel, 1992; Hagedorn, 1988,
1994a, 1994b; Hill et al., in press;
Kosterman et al., 1996; Moore, 1978, 1991;
Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Taylor, 1989
Availability of firearms Lizotte et al., 1994; Miller, 1992; Newton and
Zimring, 1969
Barriers to and lack of social and Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Cohen, 1960; Fagan,
economic opportunities 1990; Hagedorn, 1988, 1994b; Klein, 1995;
Moore, 1990; Short and Strodtbeck, 1965;
Vigil, 1988
Lack of social capital Short, 1996; Sullivan, 1989; Vigil, 1988
Cultural norms supporting gang behavior Miller, 1958; Short and Strodtbeck, 1965
Feeling unsafe in neighborhood; high crime Kosterman et al., 1996; Vigil, 1988
Conflict with social control institutions Vigil, 1988
Family Family disorganization, including broken homes Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993; Esbensen,
and parental drug/alcohol abuse Huizinga, and Weiher, 1993; Hill et al., in
press; Vigil, 1988
Troubled families, including incest, family Moore, 1978, 1991; Vigil, 1988
violence, and drug addiction
Family members in a gang Curry and Spergel, 1992; Moore, 1991;
Moore, Vigil, and Garcia, 1983
Lack of adult male role models Miller, 1958; Vigil, 1988
Lack of parental role models Wang, 1995
Low socioeconomic status Almost all studies
Extreme economic deprivation, family management Hill et al., in press; Kosterman et al.,
problems, parents with violent attitudes, sibling 1996
antisocial behavior
School Academic failure Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993; Curry and
Spergel, 1992; Kosterman et al., 1996
Low educational aspirations, especially among Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993; Hill et al., in
females press; Kosterman et al., 1996
Negative labeling by teachers Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Esbensen,
Huizinga, and Weiher, 1993
Trouble at school Kosterman et al., 1996
Few teacher role models Wang, 1995
Educational frustration Curry and Spergel, 1992
Low commitment to school, low school attachment, Hill et al., in press
high levels of antisocial behavior in school, low
achievement test scores, and identification as
being learning disabled

Domain Risk Factors Sources
Peer Group High commitment to delinquent peers Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993; Esbensen and
Huizinga, 1993; Vigil and Yun, 1990
Low commitment to positive peers Esbensen, Huizinga, and Weiher, 1993
Street socialization Vigil, 1988
Gang members in class Curry and Spergel, 1992
Friends who use drugs or who are gang members Curry and Spergel, 1992
Friends who are drug distributors Curry and Spergel, 1992
Interaction with delinquent peers Hill et al., in press; Kosterman et al.,

Individual Prior delinquency Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993; Curry and

Spergel, 1992; Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993;
Kosterman et al., 1996
Deviant attitudes Esbensen, Huizinga, and Weiher, 1993;
Fagan, 1990; Hill et al., in press;
Kosterman et al., 1996
Street smartness; toughness Miller, 1958
Defiant and individualistic character Miller, 1958; Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991
Fatalistic view of the world Miller, 1958
Aggression Campbell, 1984a, 1984b; Cohen, 1960;
Horowitz, 1983; Miller, Geertz, and Cutter,
1962; Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991
Proclivity for excitement and trouble Miller, 1958; Pennell et al., 1994
Locura (acting in a daring, courageous, and Moore, 1991; Vigil, 1988
especially crazy fashion in the face of adversity)
Higher levels of normlessness in the context of Esbensen, Huizinga, and Weiher, 1993
family, peer group, and school
Social disabilities Short and Strodtbeck, 1965; Vigil, 1988
Illegal gun ownership Bjerregaard and Lizotte, 1995; Lizotte et al.,
1994; Vigil and Long, 1990
Early or precocious sexual activity, especially Kosterman et al., 1996; Bjerregaard and
among females Smith, 1993
Alcohol and drug use Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993; Curry and
Spergel, 1992; Esbensen, Huizinga, and
Weiher, 1993; Hill et al., in press;
Thornberry et al., 1993; Vigil and Long, 1990
Drug trafficking Fagan, 1990; Thornberry et al., 1993
Desire for group rewards such as status, identity, Curry and Spergel, 1992; Fagan, 1990;
self-esteem, companionship, and protection Horowitz, 1983; Horowitz and Schwartz, 1974;
Moore, 1978, 1991; Short and Strodtbeck,
Problem behaviors, hyperactivity, externalizing Hill et al., in press; Kosterman et al.,
behaviors, drinking, lack of refusal skills, and early 1996
sexual activity
Victimization Fagan, 1990

it is difficult to determine priorities for and teachers; who associate with delin- very prevalent in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
gang prevention and intervention pro- quent peers; and engage in various forms He argued that nothing had changed from
grams without an indepth assessment of of problem behaviors are at increased the 1950’s; rather, media and public atten-
the crime problem that identifies the risk for becoming gang members” tion were diverted from gangs to the Viet-
most prevalent risk factors. (Thornberry, 1998:157). nam War, the civil rights movement, and
Long-term studies of large samples Seattle researchers discovered some- ensuing riots.
of urban adolescents in Rochester, NY what similar risk factors compared with Miller’s (1992) study indicated that
(Thornberry, 1998), and Seattle (Hill et al., Thornberry’s analysis for both male and gangs had become more dangerous than
in press) have identified causal risk factors female gang membership (Hill et al., in ever in the 1970’s. He attributed this to
for gang membership. Both studies, the press; Kosterman et al., 1996). The most four major motives: honor, defense of
former funded by OJJDP and the latter important community factor identified local turf, control [of facilities], and gain
supported by OJJDP and other agencies in the Seattle study is growing up in [of money and goods]. In the 1970’s,
and organizations, measure risk factors neighborhoods where drugs are readily “gang crime was more lethal than any
in the community, family, school, peer available. Several family variables are time in history; more people were shot,
group, and individual attribute domains. important: family instability, extreme eco- stabbed, and beaten to death in gang-
Because both studies are collecting data nomic deprivation, family management related incidents than during any previ-
on their respective samples over a long problems, parents with violent attitudes, ous decade . . . and the prevalence and
period of time, risk factors measured in and sibling antisocial behavior. Numerous sophistication of firearms used was un-
early adolescence can be used to predict school factors have been identified, in- precedented” (Miller, 1992:142).
gang membership at points later in ado- cluding low educational aspiration, low Except for gangs that specialize in vio-
lescence. The identification of early risk commitment to school, low school attach- lence, such as small Chicago Latino gangs
factors indicates priorities for prevention ment, high levels of antisocial behavior in (Block et al., 1996), violence is a rare occur-
and intervention programs. school, low achievement test scores, the rence in proportion to all gang activities
In the Rochester study, Thornberry identity of being learning disabled, and low (Maxson, 1995; Miller, 1966; Strodtbeck and
(1998) found predictors of gang member- grades. The most important peer group Short, 1964). It should be noted that violent
ship among males in all five of the do- factor is associating with law-violating behavior is not the only behavior in which
mains listed above. The most important peers. Individual risk factors are the early gang members partake. For the most part,
community risk factor is growing up in use of alcohol and marijuana, prior delin- gang members “hang out” and are involved
neighborhoods in which the level of quency, hyperactivity, externalizing be- in other normal adolescent social activities,
social integration (attachment) is low. haviors (hostility, aggression, and rule but drinking, drug use, and drug trafficking
Neither high levels of neighborhood dis- breaking), poor skills in refusing offers to are also common (Battin et al., 1998; Decker
organization nor high levels of violence engage in antisocial behavior, and early and Van Winkle, 1996; Esbensen, Huizinga,
predict gang membership. Among family sexual activity. Being a male, feeling unsafe and Weiher, 1993). Although a direct com-
variables, poverty, absence of biological in the neighborhood, and residing in a parison cannot be made, it is apparent that
parents, low parental attachment to the poor family put youth at high risk for gang the relative proportion of violence in gang
child, and low parental supervision all involvement, regardless of other commu- behaviors has increased since the 1950’s.
increase the probability of gang member- nity, family, school, or peer risk factors
(Kosterman et al., 1996). However, the The introduction to this Bulletin notes
ship. Three school variables are very that youth gang members commit a dis-
significant risk factors: low expectations greater the number of risk factors to which
youth are exposed, the greater their risk of proportionate share of offenses, includ-
for success in school (both by parents ing nonviolent ones. In the Seattle study
and students), low student commitment joining a gang in adolescence. Children
who experience 7 or more risk factors at supported by OJJDP, gang members
to school, and low attachment to teach- (15 percent of the sample) self-reported
ers. Along with school factors, peers have ages 10 to 12 are 13 times more likely to
join a gang in adolescence than children committing 58 percent of general delin-
a very strong impact on gang member- quent acts in the entire sample, 51 per-
ship. Associating with delinquent friends who experience only 1 risk factor or none
at those early ages (Hill et al., in press). cent of minor assaults, 54 percent of
and unsupervised “hanging around” with felony thefts, 53 percent of minor thefts,
these delinquent friends are a potent 62 percent of drug-trafficking offenses,
combination. Important individual risk Youth Gangs and and more than 59 percent of property
factors identified in the Rochester study Violence offenses (Battin et al., 1998). In the
are low self-esteem, numerous negative OJJDP-funded Causes and Correlates
life events, depressive symptoms, and Youth gang violence from the 1950’s
study, Denver gang members (14 percent
easy access to drugs or favorable views to the 1980’s has a curious history. Miller
(1992:2) contended that the national per- of the sample) self-reported committing
toward drug use. Finally, youth who use 43 percent of drug sales and 55 percent
drugs and are involved in delinquency— spective of gangs during this period was
dominated by a New York City media of all street offenses (Esbensen and
particularly violent delinquency—are Huizinga, 1993). In the same study, Roch-
more likely to become gang members view: “a flowering in the 1950s, death in
the 1960s, revival in the early 1970s, and ester gang members (30 percent of the
than are youth who are less involved in sample) self-reported committing 70 per-
delinquency and drug use. In sum, “youth dormancy in the later 1970s.” His survey
of gang problems in major American cities cent of drug sales, 68 percent of all prop-
who grow up in more disorganized neigh- erty offenses, and 86 percent of all seri-
borhoods; who come from impoverished, (Miller, 1975, 1992) proved the latter part
of this media theory to be wrong. Miller’s ous delinquencies (Thornberry, 1998).
distressed families; who do poorly in Curry, Ball, and Decker (1996) estimated
school and have low attachment to school study showed that gang violence was

that gang members accounted for nearly key factor? These characteristics could honor that stresses the inviolability of
600,000 crimes in 1993. be important (Yablonsky, 1962), but one’s manhood and defines breaches of
Gang members also commit serious Esbensen, Huizinga, and Weiher (1993) etiquette (Horowitz, 1983; Sanchez-
and violent offenses at a rate several found no differences in the extent to Jankowksi, 1991). Violence is also a
times higher than nongang adolescents. which Denver gang members, nongang means of demonstrating toughness and
In Denver, gang members committed ap- street offenders, and nonoffenders were fighting ability and of establishing status
proximately three times as many serious involved in eight different conventional in the gang (Short and Strodtbeck, 1965).
and violent offenses as nongang youth activities: holding schoolyear jobs, hold- These norms—coupled with the fact
(Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993). Even ing summer jobs, attending school, and that violence is contagious (Loftin,
greater differences were observed in participating in school athletics, other 1986) and clustered in space, escalates
Rochester (Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993), school activities, community athletics, over time (Block and Block, 1991), and
where gang members committed about community activities, and religious ac- likely spreads more quickly among
seven times as many serious and violent tivities. Nor have long-term studies suc- youth who are violence prone—may
delinquent acts as nongang adolescents. ceeded in identifying characteristics that explain why the level of violence in
Seattle gang youth (ages 12–18) self- distinguish gang members from other gangs is higher than in other delinquent
reported more than five times as many serious, violent, and chronic offenders. peer groups. Willingness to use violence
violent offenses (hitting someone, fight- The main difference between the two is a key characteristic distinguishing
ing, and robbery) as nongang youth groups is gang members’ higher propen- gangs from other adolescent peer
(Hill et al., in press). In Rochester, two- sity for violence (Esbensen, Huizinga, groups (Horowitz, 1983; Sanchez-
thirds of chronic violent offenders were and Weiher, 1993; Horowitz, 1983; Jankowski, 1991; Sanders, 1994). Violence
gang members for a time (Thornberry, Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Vigil, 1988); also serves to maintain organization
Huizinga, and Loeber, 1995). As Moore however, this could be because more within the gang and to control gang mem-
(1991:132) has observed, “gangs are no violent adolescents may be recruited bers (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996;
longer just at the rowdy end of the con- into gangs. Horowitz, 1983; Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991;
tinuum of local adolescent groups—they Gang norms also constitute an impor- Yablonsky, 1962).
are now really outside the continuum.” tant factor in the elevated level of vio- Levels of gang violence differ from one
How strong are the effects of gang lence in gang peer groups: “Violence that city to another (Miller, 1974), from one
membership on the behavior of indi- is internal to the gang, especially during community to another (Block and Block,
vidual members? Studies in the three cit- group functions such as an initiation, 1993), from one gang to another (Fagan,
ies showed that the influence of the gang serves to intensify the bonds among 1989), and even among cliques within the
on levels of youth violence is greater members” (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996: same gang (Moore, 1988). Violence in a
than the influence of other highly delin- 270). Most gangs are governed by norms particular clique changes as the group
quent peers (Battin et al., 1998; Huizinga, supporting the expressive use of vio- evolves: “Violence is a variable. Violence
1997; Thornberry, 1998). Youth commit lence to settle disputes (Short and is not something inevitable and fixed with
many more serious and violent acts Strodtbeck, 1965) and to achieve group gangs” (Moore, 1988:225). Decker (1996)
while they are gang members than they goals associated with member recruit- delineates a seven-step process that
do after they leave the gang (Esbensen ment, defense of one’s identity as a gang accounts for the peaks and valleys in
and Huizinga, 1993; Hill et al., 1996; member, turf protection and expansion, levels of gang violence. The process
Thornberry et al., 1993). However, the and defense of the gang’s honor (Block begins with a loosely organized gang:
influence of a gang is long lasting. In all and Block, 1993). Gang sanctioning of
violence is also dictated by a code of ◆ Gang members feel loose bonds to
three sites, although gang members’ of- the gang.
fense 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 mem-
bers, multiple-year members had much
higher robbery and drug-trafficking rates
while in the gang.
Gangs are highly criminogenic in cer-
tain cities and communities. Studies have
not yet determined what accounts for the
high levels of individual serious and vio-
lent offense rates in gangs or the lasting
effects of gang involvement. Are the indi-
vidual characteristics of gang members a

◆ Gang members collectively perceive most violent gang members illegally own to 803 (Klein, 1995), dropped slightly in
a threat from a rival gang (which or possess a firearm (Sheley and Wright, 1993, climbed back to the 800 level by
increases gang cohesion). 1993, 1995), and the lethality of assaults 1995, then dropped by 20 percent in 1996
◆ A mobilizing event occurs—possibly, appears to have increased steadily (Block (Maxson, in press[a]). Los Angeles County
but not necessarily, violent. and Block, 1993) because of the availabil- Sheriff’s Department data reported by the
ity and use of deadlier weapons. Gang California Department of Justice (1998)
◆ There is an escalation of activity. members arm themselves because they also indicate this drop in gang-related
◆ One of the gangs lashes out in believe their rivals have guns. According homicides.
violence. to Decker and Van Winkle (1996:23), “The Chicago and Los Angeles alone ac-
proliferation of guns and shootings by counted for more than 1,000 youth and
◆ Violence and activity rapidly
gang members escalates violence by cre- adult gang homicides in 1995 (Maxson,
ating a demand for armaments among in press[a]). Data on youth gangs in par-
◆ The other gang retaliates. rival gangs.” They feel they need more ticular reveal that a member’s risk of
Although our society has substantial guns, and more sophisticated ones, so being killed is 60 times greater than that
basis for fearing the violence of certain they will not be caught at a disadvantage of the general population (Morales,
gangs, most gang violence is directed at (Horowitz, 1983). 1992), and even higher in certain cities.
other gangs. Of nearly 1,000 gang-related Homicides. Although current national For example, Decker and Van Winkle
homicides in Chicago from 1987 to 1994, data on youth gang homicides is sparse, (1996) found that in St. Louis, the gang
75 percent were intergang, 11 percent they may be following the national homi- member homicide rate is 1,000 times
were intragang, and 14 percent involved cide pattern, which is in a downturn higher than the U.S. homicide rate.
nongang victims murdered by gang mem- (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1997). National data on gang homicides were
bers (Block et al., 1996). Most of the inter- The growing use of more lethal weapons gathered in the 1995 National Youth
gang conflicts are concentrated in specific in gang assaults has been driving gang Gang Survey (National Youth Gang Cen-
areas of cities with gang problems. These homicides. For example, from 1987 to ter, 1997) and again in 1996.6
disputes over turf are generally played 1990, virtually all of the increase in Chi- Gang homicides have characteristics
out in fights along the borders of disputed cago gang-motivated homicides appears that distinguish them from nongang homi-
territory. Also, as Block and colleagues to be attributable to an increase in the cides (Maxson, Gordon, and Klein, 1985).
point out (1996:11), “Spatial analysis sug- use of high-caliber, automatic, or semiau- Homicides by gang members are more
gests a ‘marauder’ pattern, in which mem- tomatic weapons (Block and Block, 1993). likely to take place in public settings
bers of rival gangs travel to the hub of The Blocks found that during a period in (particularly on the street), involve
their enemy’s territory in search of poten- which there was no increase in street strangers and multiple participants, and
tial victims.” Violent episodes generally gang assaults, gang homicides increased, involve automobiles (drive-by shootings).
occur within a mile of the attacker’s resi- indicating that the lethality of weapons Gang homicides are three times more
dence. Rivalries with other gangs, not (deaths per incident) accounted for the likely than nongang homicides to involve
vengeance against society, provide the greater number of homicides (see also fear of retaliation. Unlike other homicides,
motivation for gang growth and expansion. Zimring, 1996). In Los Angeles, the pro- gang homicides fluctuate from one racial/
portion of gang-related homicides involv- ethnic group to another at a given point
Guns ing firearms increased from 71 percent in time and in different community areas
Adolescent propensity for violence and in 1979 to 95 percent in 1994, mainly within the same city (Block and Christakos,
gun ownership and use are closely linked. because of the increased use of handguns, 1995). Gang homicide trends are also
Juvenile males who own guns for protec- particularly semiautomatics (Hutson et characterized by periodic spurts (Block,
tion rather than for sport are six times al., 1995). Surprisingly, assault weapons 1993), peaking, retreating to higher pla-
more likely to carry guns, eight times are rarely used in gang-related drive-by teaus than before, then surging upward
more likely to commit a crime with a gun, shootings and other homicides (Hutson, again. Spurts in gang homicides are
four times more likely to sell drugs, almost Anglin, and Pratts, 1994; Hutson et al., 1995;
five times more likely to be in a gang, and National Drug Intelligence Center, 1995).
three times more likely to commit serious National trend data on gang homicides 5
Law enforcement agencies define gang homicides
and violent crimes than youth who do not are scant. Miller (1982) provided the first differently (see Maxson and Klein, 1990). In the
own guns for protection (Lizotte et al., national tabulation of gang homicides, broader definition (used in Los Angeles), “gang-related”
1994). Gangs are more likely to recruit reporting a total of 633 gang-related kill- homicide, the basic element is evidence of gang mem-
adolescents who own firearms, and gang bership on the side of either the suspect or the victim.
ings in major gang cities in 1980. Since
In the narrower definition (used in Chicago), a “gang-
members are more than twice as likely as that time, gang homicides have increased motivated” homicide is considered to be a gang crime
nongang members to own a gun for pro- dramatically, reaching epidemic propor- only if the preponderance of evidence indicates that
tection, more likely to have peers who tions in certain cities like Chicago and Los the incident grew out of a street gang function. Using
own guns for protection, and more likely Angeles.5 The annual number of youth the latter, more restrictive definition in counting gang
to carry their guns outside the home and adult gang-motivated homicides in homicides will produce totals about half as large as
(Bjerregaard and Lizotte, 1995). when the former, broader definition is used.
Chicago increased almost fivefold between
1987 and 1994, then dropped slightly OJJDP’s recently published Program Summary 1995
Gangs have always been armed with
in 1995 (Block et al., 1996; Maxson, in National Youth Gang Survey, which was prepared by the
weapons of some sort (Newton and National Youth Gang Center, does not include the data
Zimring, 1969; Strodtbeck and Short, press[a]). Youth and adult gang-related
collected in the survey on homicide. These data are
1964). Recent studies have found that homicides in Los Angeles County more currently being analyzed by the National Youth Gang
than doubled from 1987 to 1992, from 387 Center, and a report is forthcoming.

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 spe-
cific neighborhoods and involve particu-
lar 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 entrepreneurial 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, Much has been made of the supposed Woods, and Klein, 1996). This discrepancy
1996), resulting in 590 homicides. In Chi- relation between adolescent drug traffick- has many determinants, including differ-
cago, from 1965 through 1994, only 120 ing and violence (Blumstein, 1995a, 1995b; ent research methods used in the various
gang homicides resulted from drive-by Fox, 1996). However, several gang studies studies, different definitions, and different
shootings (about 6 percent of the total), have found the relation between these information sources. Most of this gap may
most of which (59 percent) occurred after two behaviors to be weak or nonexistent. be accounted for by variations in defini-
1984 (Block et al., 1996). Despite a high prevalence of drug traffick- tions of gangs—and also the lack of a
ing among Seattle gang members, acceler- clear distinction between youth gangs
Drug Trafficking ated adolescent involvement in drug and adult criminal organizations in reports
Although youth gangs appear to be trafficking after joining a gang, and a of gang migration and drug trafficking.
increasing their involvement in drug strong correlation between drug traffick- Some of the apparent affiliation of small
trafficking, empirical research has not ing in midadolescence and selling drugs local youth gangs with large gangs in
documented extensive networks of drug in late adolescence, a recent analysis major cities, indicated by similar gang
trafficking as an organized activity man- of longitudinal data showed that gang names, may involve imitation or symbol-
aged by youth gangs. The consensus among involvement in drug trafficking is not a ism (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). Fortu-
the most experienced gang researchers is strong predictor of violence (Howell et al., nately, the gap is being narrowed, as seen
that the organizational structure of the in press). Several other gang studies have through recent studies reported below.
typical gang is not particularly suited to produced similar findings (Decker and Some possible expansion. A Califor-
the drug-trafficking business (Klein, 1995; Van Winkle, 1996; Esbensen and Huizinga; nia study (Skolnick, 1989; Skolnick et al.,
Moore, 1990; Spergel, 1995; Waldorf, 1993). 1993; Fagan, 1989; Klein, Maxson, and 1988) suggested that the two major Los
Cunningham, 1991; Maxson, 1995). Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods,
Some gang members become involved
in drug trafficking by acting on their own, Drug use, drug trafficking, and vio- were expanding their drug-trafficking op-
and some by involvement in gang cliques. lence overlap considerably in gangs erations to other cities. The National Drug
Several researchers have identified drug- (Howell and Decker, in press). Moreover, Intelligence Center (NDIC) (1994) reported
trafficking gangs and cliques within gangs gang involvement appears to increase “a noticeable spread of Bloods/Crips
established for drug distribution purposes individual involvement in drug use, drug gangs across the United States in the late
(Decker and Van Winkle, 1996; Fagan, 1989; trafficking, gun carrying, and violence 1980s and early 1990s.” Gangs claiming
Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Skolnick et al., and, perhaps, to prolong involvement in affiliation with the Bloods or Crips were
1988; Taylor, 1989; Waldorf, 1993). In Chi- drug sales. Although drug use is strongly reported in 180 jurisdictions in 42 States.
cago (Block et al., 1996), Detroit (Taylor, associated with drug trafficking, which is In a 1996 survey of 301 local law enforce-
1989), Milwaukee (Hagedorn, 1988, 1994a, strongly associated with gun carrying ment agencies (National Drug Intelligence
1994b), and San Francisco (Waldorf, 1993), and other serious and violent crimes, Center, 1996), Chicago-based gangs were
a few gangs have developed lucrative drug trafficking is not necessarily a di- reported in 110 jurisdictions in 35 States.
drug-trafficking enterprises, and in some rect cause of more frequent violent of- Common reasons to migrate. A 1992
cases most of their violence is associated fending except in established youth and nationwide gang migration study of youth
with drug trafficking. Chicago’s Vice Lords adult drug-trafficking gangs. More re- and adult gangs surveying 1,100 U.S. cities
and the Black Gangster Disciples are search is needed to resolve this issue. shows that the most common reasons to
notable examples (Block and Block, 1993; Gang migration. There is some dis- migrate (movement of members from one
Block et al., 1996). crepancy between research results and city to another) are social considerations,
law enforcement investigatory agency including family moves to improve the
The relation between homicide and drug trafficking
reports on youth and adult gang migra- quality of life and to be near relatives and
will be discussed later in this Bulletin. tion and drug trafficking (see Maxson, friends (Maxson, in press[b]; Maxson,

Woods, and Klein, 1996). Drug franchising Council on Criminal Justice, 1989; Skolnick in adult criminal drug distribution net-
is not the principal driving force. Migrants et al., 1988), the U.S. Congress (Clark, works more than from drug-trafficking
usually arrive individually rather than with 1991; General Accounting Office, 1989), activities of the youth gang as an organized
gang companions, and existence of local and by the executive branch of the Fed- entity (see Howell and Decker, in press).
gangs precedes migrating gang members eral Government (Bryant, 1989; Drug Youth gang homicides result more
in almost every instance. Only one-fifth of Enforcement Administration, 1988; from intergang conflict than from the drug
cities reporting gang migration attributed Hayeslip, 1989; McKinney, 1988) con- trade (Block et al., 1996; Block and Block,
their gang problem to this factor. However, cluded that gangs were instrumental in 1993). Most are due to impulsive and
cities reporting gang migration said local the increase in crack cocaine sales and emotional defense of one’s identity as a
crime rates or patterns generally were that their involvement in drug trafficking gang member, defense of the gang and gang
affected by migrants, primarily through resulted in a growth in youth violence, members, defense and glorification of the
increases in theft, robbery, and other vio- including homicide. reputation of the gang, gang member re-
lent crimes: “Gang migrants were generally The presumed strong correlation cruitment, and territorial disputes. Most
not perceived as having a substantial im- between youth and adult gang-related drug distribution network groups involv-
pact on the local drug market, probably homicides and drug trafficking has been ing youth grew out of criminal organiza-
because of their relatively low numbers” questioned in several studies. Studies in tions formed solely for crack distribution
(Maxson, Woods, and Klein, 1996:27). In Boston (Kennedy, Piehl, and Braga, 1996; and bear little resemblance to traditional
reference to youth gangs, most gang prob- Miller, 1994), Chicago (Block and Block, youth gangs (Fagan, 1996; Inciardi, 1990;
lems are “homegrown” (Klein, 1995). Sev- 1993; Block et al., 1996), Miami (Inciardi, Moore, 1990). These findings suggest that
eral local studies of drug-trafficking youth 1990; Sampson, 1985, 1988), Los Angeles interventions should be designed to tar-
gangs also have not found migration to be (Hutson et al., 1995; Klein, Maxson, and get youth and adult gang homicides and
an important factor (Decker and Van Cunningham, 1991; Maxson, 1995; Meehan drug trafficking as separate phenomena,
Winkle, 1996; Hagedorn, 1988; Huff, 1989; and O’Carroll, 1992), and St. Louis (Decker except in cases in which street gang drug
Rosenbaum and Grant, 1983; Waldorf, and Van Winkle, 1996) consistently show markets overlap with violence “hot spots”
1993; Zevitz and Takata, 1992; see also a low correlation between gang-related (areas with high gang crime rates) (Block
Maxson, in press[b]). homicides and drug trafficking (see et al., 1996).
Drug trafficking is a small factor. Howell, 1997). Two caveats explain
The availability of more intelligence has important exceptions.
enabled investigatory agencies to track
Changing Composition
First, some youth and adult gang homi- of Youth Gangs
the movement of youth and adult gangs cides are related to the drug business,
more precisely. The NDIC Street Gang from a low of 2 percent in Chicago for the The popular image of youth gangs is
Symposium (NDIC, 1995) concluded that, period from 1965 to 1994 (Block et al., that they are becoming more formally or-
as the exception rather than the rule, 1996) up to 34 percent in Los Angeles for ganized and more threatening to society,
some well-organized street gangs are the years 1988 and 1989 (Maxson and and therefore should be feared. Supergangs
engaged in interstate drug trafficking. As Klein, 1996). Although most gang drug with thousands or tens of thousands of
youth and adult gang members relocate wars appear to involve adult criminal members, including adults, have existed
throughout the country for various rea- organizations, some do involve youth at least since the 1960’s (Spergel, 1995).
sons, the gang’s drug-trafficking connec- gangs. These can produce a large number Like other gangs, they grow in times of
tions are indirectly expanded. This new of drug-related homicides, particularly in conflict or crisis and decrease in size at
information is fairly consistent with the the case of prolonged gang wars. other times (Spergel, 1990). Some gangs
findings of the Maxson migration study. with a high proportion of adult members
Second, drug trafficking contributes
It is clear that some youth gangs have have very sophisticated organizational
indirectly to youth and adult gang homi- networks, much like large corporations
extended their drug-trafficking operations cides. Although studies indicate that drug
to other States and cities. Their impact on (see McCormick, 1996). The Black Gang-
trafficking is an infrequent cause of youth ster Disciples Nation (BGDN) exemplifies
local markets could be significant. Some and adult gang homicide, the existence of
of the migrant connections may be initi- such an evolution from a relatively disor-
gang drug markets provides a context in ganized criminal street gang to a formal
ated by distant gangs for the purpose of which gang homicides are more likely to
obtaining drugs or guns (Decker and Van criminal organization (Spergel, 1995).
occur (Hagedorn, in press). Most youth Its corporate hierarchy (see McCormick,
Winkle, 1996). However, gang migration and adult gang homicides involve inter-
for drug-trafficking purposes is mainly 1996) comprises a chairman of the board,
gang conflicts and drug markets bring two boards of directors (one for prisons,
limited to within-the-region movement. rival gang members into proximity with
Further research is needed on the impact another for the streets), governors (who
one another (Block et al., 1996). control drug trafficking within geographi-
of migrating gangs on local drug trafficking.
There is no question that in particular cal areas), regents (who supply the
Homicide and the drug trade. Because communities in certain cities, youth drugs and oversee several drug-selling
the growth in youth gang violence coin- gangs are very active in drug trafficking. locations within the governors’ realms),
cided with the crack cocaine epidemic However, the common stereotypes of the area coordinators (who collect revenues
(Inciardi, 1986; Inciardi and Pottieger, relationships between gangs, drug traf- from drug-selling spots), enforcers (who
1991; Klein, 1995), the two developments ficking, and violence are sensationalized beat or kill members who cheat the gang
appeared to be interrelated (Klein, Maxson, (Moore, 1990). Where drug-related vio- or disobey other rules), and “shorties”
and Cunningham, 1991; Moore, 1990). lence occurs, it mainly stems from drug (youth who staff drug-selling spots and
Nonempirical assessments conducted by use and dealing by individual gang mem- execute drug deals). From 1987 to 1994,
local governmental agencies (California bers and from gang member involvement BGDN was responsible for more than 200

Table 2: Common Differences Between Street Gangs and Drug
Space limitations here preclude exten-
Gangs sive discussion of program options.8
Street Gangs Drug Gangs Although no program has been demon-
strated through rigorous evaluation (of
Versatile (“cafeteria-style”) crime Crime focused on drug business which there has been little) to be effective
Larger structures Smaller structures in preventing or reducing serious and
Less cohesive More cohesive violent youth gang delinquency, a number
Looser leadership More centralized leadership of promising strategies are available.
Ill-defined roles Market-defined roles Preventing children and adolescents
Code of loyalty Requirement of loyalty from joining gangs appears be the most
Residential territories Sales market territories cost-effective long-term strategy. The
Members may sell drugs Members do sell drugs Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
Intergang rivalries Competition controlled has implemented a school-based gang
Younger on average, Older on average, prevention curriculum, Gang Resistance
but wider age range but narrower age range Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.).
Evaluation has shown positive prelimi-
Source: Klein, 1995:132. nary results (Esbensen and Osgood,
1997). Students who completed the
G.R.E.A.T. program reported lower levels
homicides (Block et al., 1996). One-half of dominate, but law enforcement agencies of gang affiliation and self-reported delin-
their arrests were for drug offenses and in a number of cities are now reporting quency, including drug use, minor offend-
only one-third were for nonlethal violence. Asian and South Pacific groups, more ing, property crimes, and crimes against
Klein (1995:36) observed that “the old, white gangs, and more racial/ethnic mix- persons. Further evaluation will deter-
traditional gang structure of past decades ing than in the past (Klein, 1995). mine the effectiveness of this program.
seems to be declining.” In an earlier era, The growth of adult prison gangs is The Comprehensive Community-Wide
youth gangs might have comprised several also a fairly recent development (Ralph et Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention,
hundred members and were generally al., 1996). These gangs began to be a sig- and Suppression Program, developed by
age graded, consisting of several discrete nificant factor in State prisons in the late Spergel and his colleagues (Spergel et al.,
subgroups based on age (Klein and 1960’s and early 1970’s, and some States 1994; see also Thornberry and Burch, 1997),
Crawford, 1967; Moore, 1991; Miller, 1974). are now reporting an increase in gang- contains 12 program components for the
Both youth and adult gangs had these related inmate violence. Moreover, there design and mobilization of community
characteristics. Recently, however, age- is evidence that prison gangs in Texas, efforts by police, prosecutors, judges,
graded and geographically based youth for example, are exporting their operations probation and parole officers, corrections
and adult gangs have become less com- to large urban areas in the State (Ralph officers, school officials, employers,
mon (see Klein and Maxson, 1996). These et al., 1996). These developments are of community-based agency staff such as
have given way “to relatively autonomous, concern because when adult gang member
smaller, independent groups, poorly orga- inmates return to their home communities,
nized and less territorial than used to be they give vitality to local youth gangs 8
See Howell (1998) for a detailed historical review of
the case” (Klein, 1995:36). Leadership “is (Moore, 1988). program evaluations.
complex, fluid and responsive, more dif-
fuse than concentrated, and depends in
large part on the particular activity being
conducted” (Miller, 1974:217). Even large
youth gangs composed of allied “sets”
may not be well organized and may be
in a constant state of flux because of the
various subgroups, changing leadership,
and limited number of hardcore members
(Sanders, 1994).
Although they are very much in the
minority, youth and adult drug gangs are
more predominant now than in the 1970’s
and 1980’s. Klein (1995) identifies a num-
ber of common differences between youth
gangs and drug gangs, recognizing that
there is some overlap in these dimensions
(see table 2).
The racial/ethnic composition of gangs
also appears to be changing. African-
American and Hispanic gangs still pre-

street outreach workers, and a range of Orange County District Attorney, and the approaches, supported by a management
grassroots organization staff. Variations County Probation Department (Capizzi, information system and rigorous program
of this model are currently being imple- Cook, and Schumacher, 1995). The Gang evaluation.
mented and tested in five sites under Incident Tracking System (GITS) identifies Community responses must begin with
OJJDP support. and tracks gang members, providing the a thorough assessment of the specific
An early pilot of this model, the Gang information base for the TARGET pro- characteristics of the gangs themselves,
Violence Reduction Program, has been gram. TARGET uses intelligence gathering crimes they commit, other problems they
implemented in Chicago. Preliminary and information sharing to identify and present, and the localities they affect.
evaluation results (after 3 years of pro- select appropriate gang members and Other Bulletins in this series (Howell, in
gram operations) are positive (Spergel gangs for intervention. press) provide guidance to communities
and Grossman, 1997; see also Thornberry Police should not be expected to assume in assessing their potential gang problems
and Burch, 1997). Positive results include sole responsibility for gang problems, yet and in crafting solutions. Principles for
a lower level of serious gang violence gang suppression remains the predominant effective gang strategies are provided,
among the targeted gangs than among strategy that jurisdictions use to deal with along with promising and effective program
comparable gangs in the area. There also gangs. Suppression tactics have recently models.
is noted improvement in residents’ per- been expanded in three ways:
ceptions of gang crime and police effec-
tiveness in dealing with that crime. In
◆ State laws increasing criminal Conclusion
sanctions for gang crime and gang
addition, there are fewer arrests for seri- Youth gang problems are proliferating
involvement and local ordinances and
ous gang crimes (especially aggravated across the United States, even in small
enforcement of specific criminal codes
batteries and aggravated assaults) by cities and towns. At the same time, the
that restrict gang activities.
members of targeted gangs as compared composition of youth gangs is changing.
with control youth from the same gangs ◆ Multiagency and multijurisdictional Smaller, less structured gangs are emerg-
and members of other gangs in Chicago. strategies bringing together several ing, and although drug trafficking is gen-
The project also was able to hasten the law enforcement agencies in a collective erally not an organized activity managed
departure of youth from the gang while approach. by gangs, drug gangs are more predomi-
reducing their involvement in violence ◆ Collaborative approaches tying together nant now than in previous decades. The
and other crimes (Spergel, Grossman, and all sectors of the community. racial/ethnic composition of gangs also is
Wa, 1998). These results are attributed to changing, and gangs are becoming more
A gang suppression model, the Boston organized.
the project’s coordinated approach com-
Gun Project (Clark, 1997; Kennedy, Piehl,
bining community mobilization, suppres- Gang violence—particularly homicide—
and Braga, 1996), is employing a coerced
sion, and social intervention, which has increased, owing mainly to availabil-
use-reduction strategy targeting gun vio-
appears to be more effective than the ity and use of more dangerous weapons,
lence involving gang members. To carry
traditional, mainly suppression-oriented, especially automatic and semiautomatic
out its deterrence strategy, the Boston
approach. handguns. This violence also has been
Police Department’s Youth Violence Strike
Studies reviewed in this Bulletin show Force, through Operation Nite Lite, uses linked to gangs’ proclivity to be associ-
that many serious, violent, and chronic probation and police officers who patrol ated with drug trafficking. New research,
offenders are gang members, at least at the streets in teams to identify gang mem- however, questions the extent to which
some point during adolescence. Thus, it bers, enforce conditions of probation, and gang-related drug sales are a major cause
is important for the juvenile and criminal increase sanctions for probation and pa- of violence. It appears that most gang
justice systems to target gang offenders. role violations. Evaluation results are not violence is related to conflicts with other
Targeting gang members for graduated yet available, although gun homicide vic- gangs.
sanctions (including priority arrest, adju- timization among 14- to 24-year-olds in Most gang problems are homegrown.
dication, vertical prosecution,9 intensive the city is reported to have fallen by two- Gang migration appears to contribute
probation supervision, incarceration, and thirds after the project began (Kennedy, little to local gang problems, including
transfer to the criminal justice system) 1997), including a 27-month period in drug trafficking, except within geographic
can also be accomplished by implement- which no juvenile homicide occurred regions. There is some discrepancy be-
ing OJJDP’s Comprehensive Strategy for (Harden, 1997). Because homicides were tween research results and investigatory
Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile dropping nationwide among this age group agency reports on youth and adult gang
Offenders (Howell, 1995; Wilson and when the project began, the evaluation migration and drug trafficking; however,
Howell, 1993). will compare Boston’s homicide trends to much of this can be explained by the
One successful intervention that can a sample of other cities. studies’ use of different research meth-
be implemented in such a comprehensive Communities should organize a collabo- ods, definitions, and information sources.
strategy is the Tri-Agency Resource Gang rative approach to gang problems from the Although significant progress is being
Enforcement Team (TARGET), which sup- outset rather than beginning with a pre- made in identifying the major risk factors
ports gang interdiction, apprehension, dominantly suppression strategy. for youth gang involvement, much more
and prosecution. This California program information is needed to specify the devel-
The program model that proves to be
integrates and coordinates the work of opmental sequence by which these risk
most effective is likely to contain multiple
the Westminster Police Department, the factors operate. This knowledge will be very
components, incorporating prevention,
social intervention, rehabilitation, sup- useful in the development of prevention
The prosecutor who files a case remains responsible pression, and community mobilization and intervention programs. Progress also
for it throughout the prosecution process. is being made in developing comprehensive

programs that combine prevention, social Research Bulletin. Chicago, IL: Illinois Unpublished. Chicago, IL: Report of the
intervention and rehabilitation, and sup- Criminal Justice Information Authority. Chicago Crime Commission.
pression of gang violence. Because of a Block, R., and Block, C.R. 1993. Street Clark, C.S. 1991. Youth gangs. Congres-
dearth of program evaluations, however, Gang Crime in Chicago. Research in Brief. sional Quarterly Research 22:755–771.
little is known about the effectiveness of Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Jus-
these interventions. The current evalua- Clark, J.R. 1997. LEN salutes its 1997
tice, Office of Justice Programs, National People of the Year, the Boston Gun Project
tion of OJJDP’s five-site program may shed Institute of Justice. NCJ 144782.
more light on the effectiveness of compre- Working Group. Law Enforcement News
hensive programs. Blumstein, A. 1995a. Violence by young 23(1):4–5.
people: Why the deadly nexus? National Cloward, R.A., and Ohlin, L.E. 1960.
A key issue in combating youth gangs Institute of Justice Journal (August):1–9.
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them—distinguishing them from trouble- Blumstein, A. 1995b. Youth violence, Delinquent Gangs. New York, NY: The Free
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James C. Howell is an Adjunct Researcher
Taylor, C.S. 1989. Dangerous Society. Waldorf, D. 1993. Don’t be your own at the National Youth Gang Center, Institute for
East Lansing, MI: Michigan State Univer- best customer—Drug use of San Francisco
Intergovernmental Research.
sity Press. gang drug sellers. Crime, Law and Social
Change 19:1–15. This Bulletin was prepared under coopera-
Thornberry, T.P. 1998. Membership in tive agreement 95–JD–MU–K001 to the Institute
youth gangs and involvement in serious Wang, Z. 1995. Gang affiliation among
for Intergovernmental Research from the Office
and violent offending. In Serious and Vio- Asian-American high school students: A of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention,
lent Offenders: Risk Factors and Successful path analysis of a social developmental
U.S. Department of Justice.
Interventions, edited by R. Loeber and model. Journal of Gang Research 2:1–13.
Points of view or opinions expressed in this
D.P. Farrington. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Wilson, J.J., and Howell, J.C. 1993. Com-
document are those of the author and do not
Publications, pp. 147–166. prehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent, necessarily represent the official position or
Thornberry, T.P., and Burch, J.H. 1997. and Chronic Juvenile Offenders. Washing-
policies of OJJDP or the U.S. Department of
Gang Members and Delinquent Behavior. ton, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office Justice.
Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile
of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delin-
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency NCJ 143453.
quency Prevention is a component of the Of-
Prevention. NCJ 165154. Wilson, W.J. 1987. The Truly Disadvan- fice of Justice Programs, which also includes
Thornberry, T.P., Huizinga, D., and taged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Bureau of
Loeber, R. 1995. The prevention of serious Public Policy. Chicago, IL: University of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Jus-
delinquency and violence: Implications Chicago. tice, and the Office for Victims of Crime.
from the program of research on the
causes and correlates of delinquency. In A
Sourcebook: Serious, Violent, and Chronic
Juvenile Offenders, edited by J.C. Howell, Share With Your Colleagues
B. Krisberg, J.D. Hawkins, and J.J. Wilson.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Unless otherwise noted, OJJDP publications are not copyright protected. We
pp. 213–237. encourage you to reproduce this document, share it with your colleagues, and
reprint it in your newsletter or journal. However, if you reprint, please cite OJJDP
Thornberry, T.P., Krohn, M.D., Lizotte, and the authors of this Bulletin. We are also interested in your feedback, such as
A.J., and Chard-Wierschem, D. 1993. The how you received a copy, how you intend to use the information, and how OJJDP
role of juvenile gangs in facilitating delin- materials meet your individual or agency needs. Please direct your comments and
quent behavior. Journal of Research in questions to:
Crime and Delinquency 30:55–87.
Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse
Thrasher, F.M. 1927. The Gang. Chicago, Publication Reprint/Feedback
IL: University of Chicago Press. P.O. Box 6000
Vigil, J.D. 1988. Barrio Gangs: Street Life Rockville, MD 20849–6000
and Identity in Southern California. Austin, 800–638–8736
TX: University of Texas Press. 301–519–5212 (Fax)
Vigil, J.D. 1990a. Cholos and gangs:
Culture change and street youth in Los

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