In the 1970s, only 19 states in the United States reported gangs and gang violence to be issues faced by criminal justice personnel. By 1995, however, all states as well as the District of Columbia reported gangs and gang violence to be problems. Roughly 4,000 cities, towns, villages, and counties now report ongoing problems with gangs. California, Illinois, Texas, and Florida are home to the largest numbers of gangs and gang members. This essay discusses the reasons why individuals join gangs, the pervasiveness of gangs and gang violence in the community and in schools, and prevention and intervention programs aimed at curbing the number of gangs, the number of gang members, and the rate of gang-related violence.
Before moving forward, it is important to establish a definition of a gang. Different jurisdictions have different definitions for gangs, and historically researchers have had trouble defining gangs due to the differences in the types of gangs and their activities. Additionally, every jurisdiction’s gang problem is unique from the rest. Such a lack of consensus means that law enforcement agencies, as well as criminologists and sociologists, must select their own criteria for defining a gang.
Although the definition of a gang may vary depending on the particular jurisdiction or law agency, the following criteria are generally used to define a gang: (1) the group has a formal organizational structure, (2) the group has a leader as well as a hierarchy, (3) the group is identified with a specific territory, (4) the group’s members have consistent interaction, and (5) the members participate in deviant and criminal offenses. This essay uses the definition of a gang or a youth gang, as defined by the National Youth Gang Center, is “a group of youth or young adults in your jurisdiction that you or other responsible persons in your agency or community are willing to identify as a gang.” Motorcycle gangs, hate groups, prison gangs, and gangs consisting solely of adults are excluded from this definition.
Young people join gangs for a variety of reasons: to find a sense of belonging, security, respect, entertainment, peer influence, status, acceptance, and monetary success.
Although gangs date back hundreds of years, in the 1960s heightened concern in reference to violent crime in the United States began to come to the surface. In the 1970s, although not yet causing much alarm, gang violence and membership continued to rise. By the 1980s, more police officials, criminologists, and politicians began to focus on the illegal activities of gangs. In the 1990s, gang violence peaked and reached alarming levels. During this decade, gang activity was viewed as widespread, threatening, and on the rise. It was in this environment that gang officers were assigned and gang units were born. Moreover, research into gangs began, gang programs were created and implemented, and the U.S. Department of Justice created the National Youth Gang Center.
According to data gathered by a law enforcement survey, in 1991 there were roughly 4,881 gangs in the United States with an estimated 249,324 members. In 1994, more than 90% of the nation’s largest cities reported youth gang problems, an increase of 40% since 1983. In 1999, 66% of large cities, 47% of suburban counties, and 27% of small cities reported active youth gangs.
According to the Violence Prevention Institute, 100% of cities with a population of 250,000 or more reported gang activity in 2001. That same year, 85% of cities with a population between 100,000 and 229,440 reported gang activity. Moreover, 65% of cities with a population between 50,000 and 99,999 reported gang activity, 44% of cities with populations of 25,000 to 49,999 reported such activity, and 20% of cities with populations of 2,500 to 24,995 reported gang activity in 2001.
In addition, 35% of suburban cities and 11% of rural cities reported gang activity in 2001. Also noteworthy is the fact that 56% of cities with populations larger than 100,000 reported either an increase or no change regarding numbers of gang members in 2001. A year later, in 2002, the Youth Gang Survey estimated that there were 732,000 gang members in the United States, a 5% increase over the number tallied in the previous year.
The mid-1990s until the early 2000s saw a slight decline in gang violence. In 2007, however, one-third of jurisdictions–the highest proportion since the 1990s– experienced gang problems. Within the areas surveyed, 86% of law enforcement agencies in larger cities, 50% of agencies in suburban counties, 35% of agencies in small cities, and 15% of agencies in rural counties reported gang problems.
Overall, roughly 3,550 jurisdictions served by city and county law enforcement agencies experienced gang problems in 2007. In that same year, there were a total of 788,000 gang members and 27,000 gangs in the United States.
These statistics convey the sense that gang violence is a serious issue in communities throughout the United States. Research suggests that teens and young adults who belong to a gang are far more likely to commit violent or serious offenses. For example, a survey in Denver concluded that while only 14% of teens were active gang members, that small percentage was responsible for committing 89% of the violent crimes in the city. Across the United States, crime trends indicate that the number of violent acts committed by youth gang members is increasing. The explanation for this rise of violence by youth gang members is simple: guns.
Beginning in the 20th century, rather than using a knife or fists as weapons, gang members began to use revolvers, semi-automatic weapons, and other powerful guns to commit violent acts. With the larger number of gangs, more fearless members, and ever deadlier weapons, gang violence began to soar, particularly in the 1990s. For example, in 1994, Chicago and Los Angeles alone accounted for more than 1,000 gang homicides. While gang homicides decreased in the vast majority of large cities between 1995 and 2000, homicides considered to be gang related increased by 50% between 1999 and 2002.
A 1998 study comparing gang and non-gang criminal behavior produced the following findings:
- 30.4% of gang members and 14.3% of non-gang members shoplifted
- 44% of gang members and 4.1% of non-gang members committed auto theft
- 51.1% of gang members and 14.3% of non-gang members committed other forms of theft
- 72.3% of gang members and 16.3% of non-gang members assaulted rivals
- 29.8% of gang members and 10.2% of non-gang members bribed police officials
- 40.4% of gang members and 2% of non-gang members committed drive-by shootings
- 15.2% of gang members and 0% of non-gang members in this sample carried out a homicide
According to the Violence Prevention Institute, 69% of cities with populations larger than 100,000 reported gang-related homicides in 2001. In that same year, 59% of all homicides in Los Angeles and 53% of homicides in Chicago were gang related. In Los Angeles and Chicago combined, there were a total of 698 gang-related homicides. In comparison, in 130 other cities with populations greater than 100,000 that were experiencing gang problems, there were a total of 637 such homicides.
In August 2005, there were 160 reported gang-related robberies and 59 attempted gang-related homicides in Los Angeles alone. Research indicates that in 2007, one in five of the largest cities reported an increase in gang homicides and about two in five reported an increase in other violent offenses by gang members.
In addition to being connected to violent crimes in the community, youth gang activity is correlated with serious crime problems in elementary, middle, and high schools in the United States. In schools attended by gang members, students have roughly double the likelihood of violent victimization of students in non-gang-populated schools. According to the Youth Gang Survey, among the respondents reporting gang activity in 2000, 95% identified activity within one or more high schools in their jurisdictions. Furthermore, a startling 91% reported gang activity within one or more middle schools in their jurisdictions. Moreover, According to an NCVS (National Crime Victimization Survey) sample of 10,000 students ages 12 to19, 26% of 12-year-olds, 34% of 13-year-olds, and 41% of 14- to19-year-olds reported gang presence in or around their school.
In a different study, 45% of a student sample reported being threatened or shot at on the way to or from school. In the School Crime Supplement to the NCVS, one-third of youths surveyed reported a gang presence in their schools in 2005. The majority of these gangs seen in schools are involved in one or more of the following types of criminal offenses: selling drugs, carrying guns, and violence. Additionally, compared with previous years, higher percentages of students reported knowing a student who brought a gun to school when gangs were present at school (25%) than when gangs were not present (8%).
In another sample of 1,279 schools in the United States in 2001, 7.6% of male secondary students and 3.8% of female secondary students reported belonging to a gang in the previous 12 months. Approximately 28% of gang-involved boys reported being threatened with a gun or knife that school year. Additionally, 5% of boys who were not affiliated with a gang reported being threatened with a weapon. For girls, those numbers were 18% and 2%, respectively.
Researchers have found that 40.4% of gang members, compared to 10.2% of non-gang members, bring a gun to school; 19.1% of gang members, compared to 8.2% of non-gang members, sell drugs in school. In addition, the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center reports substantial drug availability when gangs are present in schools.
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