This paper gives in-depth information on gang activity in the U.S. and explores the causes of gang membership and examines several studies that have found correlations between gang membership and various life circumstances. It also looks at the question of whether economic incentive is a factor in gang membership, and whether or not peer pressure increases violent crimes among gang members. The paper concludes by exploring various experts' proposals for reducing the amount of youth joining gangs in America.
Keywords: At-risk Youth; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, & Explosives (ATF); Gangs; Immigration & Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE); Juvenile Delinquency; National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97); Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention (JJDP); Special Weapons & Tactics (SWAT); Violent Crime Index (VCI)
American youth becoming involved in gangs is not a new phenomenon. The first documented youth gang was in the late 1700s in New York, so gangs have been part of American culture for well over two centuries (Arinde, 2006, p. 34). Most of the youth who get involved with gangs come from poor neighborhoods in large cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. Seals (2009) expresses the general consensus on gangs thus:
For the past 80 years, ethnographic research has linked the behavioral patterns of the urban under-privileged to street gang formation and proliferation. This literature shows that gang activity is most common among impoverished young males and concludes that gang participation is the manifestation of greater societal pressures on these individuals (p. 410).
Kingsbury (2008) also notes that "gangs are perpetuated by a cycle of despair that is nearly impossible to break," and gives us a revealing statistic. Since the 1980s, gang-related homicide has been the main cause of death for young black men between the ages of 15 and 34 (p. 3). There are of course historical reasons that many African Americans ended up in impoverished big-city ghettos where gangs proliferate, but gangs are by no means only a phenomenon among African Americans. Gangs arise from every ethnicity in America, and we should examine some studies and reliable statistics in order to get a clearer picture of the problem of gangs in America.
Obtaining a clear picture can be difficult, however. Kingsbury (2008) points out that "gauging the true scope of the gang problem is difficult, chiefly because law enforcement lacks a common definition of a gangster or what makes a particular crime gang-related" (p. 10). Captain Eric Adams, who has worked for years in New York City law enforcement, points out an additional problem in gathering accurate information on gangs. He asserts that, in New York, "The police department won't properly classify certain crimes as gang-related, and so you don't know if there is an increase or decrease in the crime rate … It's a public relations exercise. They think if they don't say it, then it's not happening" (cited in Arinde, 2006, p. 34). An important study that attempts to gather accurate information on gang activity in America is known as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97), which began collecting data annually from 1997. That study gives the following definition for the concept of gang-involvement:
By gangs, we mean a group that hangs out together, wears gang colors or clothes, has set clear boundaries of its territory or turf, protects its members and turf against other rival gangs through fighting or threats (cited in Seals, 2009, p. 412).
According to an estimate by the FBI, around 785,000 gang members operate in the U.S., and these gang members belong to around 26,500 different gangs in about 3,400 communities across the country. However, the FBI also estimates that more than 30% of those 3,400 communities claim they do not have a problem with gangs when in reality they do. "It's a denial bred from either fear or stigma, according to the FBI" (Kingsbury, 2008, p. 10). Seals gives a similar estimate on the number of gang members in the U.S., and argues that street gangs have grown to become "an epidemic problem in the United States". Citing other researchers, Seals (2009) observes that gangs are probably the main distributors of all illegal drugs, and most adolescents who commit murders in American cities are members of gangs (p. 407).
Voisin et al. (2008) gathered a lot of data on gang activity in America, and their findings make it quite clear that there has been a significant rise in young women joining gangs. Voisin writes, "male adolescents were equally as likely as female adolescents to belong to a gang" (p. 155). There has also been a significant increase in the female violent crime rate in the United States. In 1980, "the male Violent Crime Index rate was 8.3 times that of the female rate, by 2003, the male rate declined 26%, whereas the female rate increased 47% so that the male rate was only 4.2 times that of the female rate" (p. 155). Their conclusion is that female adolescents have been "closing the gap with male adolescents in terms of being arrested and committing more violent crimes." As for the cause of this significant increase in both female gang membership and female violent crimes, Voisin et al. cite that more girls are committing violent crimes from "negative peer influences, sexual abuse, dysfunctional families, and living in neighborhoods characterized by few or no viable educational opportunities, violence, and poverty" (p. 155). In this original study, Voisin finds that "female adolescents were more likely to witness family violence, suggesting that for some of these girls, being raised in a dysfunctional family, coupled with community violence, may play some role in their gang involvement" (p. 155).
There is also a relationship between youth being arrested and youth being part of gangs, though the number of arrested youth who belong to gangs is difficult to estimate. Voisin et al. cite statistics from other sources that help us to see a clearer picture:
Each year, approximately 2.5 million youths are arrested, and an additional 1.8 million cases are referred to juvenile courts. Furthermore, an average of 109,000 youths (age 18 and younger) are incarcerated daily. Incarceration rates, however, are not consistent across all adolescent populations. For example, the number of juvenile female detainees is increasing at a much faster rate than that of males. In addition, African American and Hispanic youths, representing 20% of the adolescent population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000), account for approximately 60% of juvenile detainees (p. 147).
It should seem obvious that African American and Hispanic youths are not more inclined to criminal behavior merely due to their ethnicity. Rather, in looking at the percentage of African American and Hispanic youth who are living in ghetto-like conditions, this number would be a much higher percentage than the overall percentage of white youths living in such conditions. Simply put, there is a disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic youths living in quite bad economic conditions in America's cities. Under such conditions, criminality and violence become more common, as does gang membership. As Seals points out, "gang members report an astonishingly high rate of gun violence (34.9 percent) in their childhood environment compared with non-gang members. The rate of fatherless homes is also much higher among gang members than for non-gang members" (2009, p. 416).
Dysfunctional families, or broken homes, are quite common in impoverished communities compared to middle- and upper-class communities. Dysfunctional families are also the largest source of runaway youth. Rafferty and Raimondi (2009) point out that a high number of runaway youths become members of street gangs. They cite a 2003 study in which 602 homeless and runaway youths were interviewed, and which revealed that "almost half of the youths were involved in gangs or were actual gang members." The study also showed that, "the younger they were when they ran away increased the chances that the youths became associated with a street gang" (p. 21).
Why do Kids Join Gangs?
An important question that some researchers have asked is, to what extent do economic incentives encourage gang membership? This is the question Seals examined, but he points out that there is not much data to research when trying to answer it (2009, p. 407). Seals used annual county unemployment rates to see if there is a correlation between higher unemployment rates and increased gang activity. After analyzing the data, Seals asserts that "the local unemployment rate is positively related to male gang participation, as the availability of legitimate jobs is a key indicator of economic prospects for low-skilled workers" (p. 412). Seals also points to another important study that concludes the fundamental cause of urban poverty in the U.S. is "a lack of opportunity for low-skilled workers in the post-industrial economy and the resulting unemployment (or underemployment) of those workers." Seals' study shows that gang participation peaks when members are sixteen years old, which is the minimum legal age for working in any non-hazardous occupation. After age 16, youth membership in gangs begins to decline. Thus, "the rise in gang participation until age sixteen could be the result of economic opportunity provided by gangs to those unable to find legitimate employment," and that the decrease in gang participation after youth have reached sixteen years of age may be from youth having more opportunities for legitimate employment (p. 415).
There are other positive and negative correlations that create a clearer profile for those youth whom are likely to join gangs:
(The entire section is 4430 words.)