For many youth, gang membership is a way of life. Deviance and delinquency, often attributed to gang membership, are a certainty. Most gang members join ranks as young teenagers, and the prevalence of girls in gangs is rising. One study looks at the gang mentality of prison inmates who purposely (and without remorse) attacked law enforcement officials. As part of an attempt to combat gang activity, The U.S. Department of Justice has several commissions to identify gang members and to prevent new members from joining. Law enforcement officials and school administrators are also trained to identify gang tattoos in and outside of school.
Keywords Aggregation; Antisocial Behavior; At-risk; Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); Conduct Disorder; Deviance; Gang; Juvenile Delinquency; Oppositional Defiant Disorder; Recidivism
West Side Story is a tragic love story depicted through a turf-war between two rival gangs - the Jets and the Sharks. Both the film and the Broadway production are based on fictional events starring fictional characters. However, neither Tony nor Maria saw the realistic ending of their romance before it happened; gang activity often involves violence, and violence often results in death. While Tony didn't anticipate his impending demise, school administrators, criminalists, and the federal government do realize the danger of gang membership and try to prevent it whenever they note new affiliates being pursued.
A gang is generally a group of individuals (often adolescents or young adults) who have united as an organized collection in a set territory, often to engage in illegal or deviant behaviors. In most instances, an allegiance forms, and the gang members become loyal to each other and the gang as an entity. Another part is swearing allegiance to the other members of the group, vowing to protect and stand by each of them. This allegiance is what identifies members of the Ku Klux Klan and other cult-like organizations as well. In this vein, gang activity crosses education, racial, socioeconomic, and geographic boundaries.
Primarily, though, gangs in America contain male youth, adolescents generally ranging in age from ten to twenty. In many instances, the members of a gang are considered juvenile delinquents, as they tend to behave in ways that are defined as offenses of deviance. A general definition of a juvenile delinquent includes people who are under the age of 18 committing one or more acts that violate the law. Violating the law for a juvenile can include not attending school, running away from home, or drinking alcohol; it can also include many of the same offenses committed by adults, like theft or assault (Smith, 2008).
Smith (2008) also notes that juvenile delinquency has been identified with other youth behavior issues, like antisocial behavior, conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder. Sadly, these disorders are often "seen in combination with other mental health disorders and conditions such as Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder" (Smith, 2008, p. 4). Young men feeling like they behave differently than their peers may see the community of gang membership as a positive move toward social integration, not to mention a status builder. Peers who never noticed these young men will surely take note when the social misfits become the school drug dealers or the bullies on the playground. What's critical to note here is that most youth will decide to enter a gang by the time they reach the age of fifteen. Any adolescent who violates the law should receive immediate intervention, especially if he's a young teenager.
Youth in Montreal, Canada. In the study, gang members between the ages of 14-16 were evaluated based on self-reported activity as well as court documents. Gatto et al. (2005) focused on the frequency of several behaviors they considered to be delinquent. Drug use, property damage, theft, and violent offenses were the concentration (p. 1178). Of the several hundred youth in the study, those affiliated with a gang were the most likely to act delinquently (p. 1178), so much so that once all of the data was correlated, membership in a gang was noted as an actual predictor for delinquency (p. 1186). This is a circular reference: those who behave delinquently tend to be gang members and gang members - as the study notes - will be delinquent. This is not to say that good kids don't do bad things because they do. However, in this study, those adolescents who used drugs, destroyed property, or behaved violently were members of gangs.
Pinizzotto, Davis & Miller III, (2007), conducted over twenty-years of research interviewing gang members in prison regarding their violent behaviors toward members of law enforcement. During their interviews, Pinizzotto et al. (2007) learned that,
… gang members either attempted to or inflicted injuries of greater severity than appeared warranted under the circumstances. They exhibited no remorse for their actions but, rather, appeared to take pride in attacking sworn law enforcement professionals (p. 3).
For example, attacking a police officer is a high-status endeavor.
What is not surprising is that Pinizotto et al. (2007) noted similarities among the inmates.
• First, all of the gang members they interviewed had no male role models when growing up;
• Second, none of the gang members graduated from high school;
• Third, the average age for the first criminal offense of the interviewees was nine;
• Fourth, all of the inmates interviewed "experienced some form of verbal or physical abuse within the family setting. Outside this unit, all became the victim of at least one physical assault during their early childhoods";
• The fifth similarity involves work; none of the gang members had a non-gang affiliated job when they were arrested;
• Finally, each of the inmates identified their neighborhoods as being an integral part of their lives (Pinizotto et al., 2007 p. 3-6).
Summarizing their findings, the researchers identify a gang mentality that should cause alarm:
The goal of every gang member was to achieve status and respect within their gangs. Respected only when feared, gang members achieved this through repeated acts of physical violence against others … Once perceived as willing to use violence without conscience, especially when directed toward law enforcement officers, gang members obtained status (p. 7).
Girls in Gangs
According to Wes McBride, a retired L. A. County Sheriff's investigator and an authority on street gangs, "a lot of gang fighting is about girlfriends. It's really a turf dispute. The woman is a man's property, and if she's insulted, he's insulted … There used to be fistfights, but now shooting the other guy is the only means of problem solving" (as cited in Junod, 2008, p. 100). Someone may wonder why a young woman would join a gang. Eghigian & Kirby (2006) note some possible reasons:
Girls join gangs for the same reason most boys do -- multiple factors and circumstances that have existed throughout their lives: financial opportunity, identity and status, peer pressure, family dysfunction and protection. However, some girls readily admit that they join because they are bored and look to gangs for a social life; they are looking for fun and excitement and a means to find parties and meet boys. Regrettably for those who naively join expecting harmless social rewards, they may find out too late about the actual violent nature of street gang existence. Still, others join simply because gangs are there in the neighborhood and are viewed as an everyday way of life (Eghigian & Kirby, 2006, p. 48).
Even if it is a way of life, young women need to endure initiation before gaining member status within a gang. In some gangs the practice of initiation would be dictated, like in a hazing or pledging situation. In other cases, however, the person who will endure the circumstances has the opportunity to choose by what method she is welcomed into the gang (Eghigian & Kirby, 2006). In general, most initiation types fall into one of the following categories.
• "Violated" or "jumped in" refers to a physical beating the candidate must absorb to prove her toughness, loyalty and commitment to the gang;
• The mission method simply requires the girl to commit a criminal act, perhaps ride along on a drive-by shooting or even be dropped off deep in enemy territory and forced to get out alive;
• "Sexed in" is not the most common, but certainly the least respected initiation, in which a female may elect to participate in sex with a gang member. However, both girls and boys alike look down on this initiation, and those who elect this course are usually typecast and have extremely low status; and
• "Walked in" or "blessed in" is reserved only for those girls who have had generations of family as gang members, who have a family member in good gang standing, or who have grown up in the neighborhood, are well known, respected and have proved their loyalty beyond question (Eghigian & Kirby 2006, p. 49).
One of the roles that young women have within a gang community is to transport contraband like drugs and guns in and outside of a prison. The theory behind this job is that criminalists are less likely to search women. Young women also tend to find employment within the law enforcement system, perhaps in a clerk's office to gather information regarding gang members or witnesses of crimes committed by gang members. Another role is much more dangerous and requires dependability. Some young women act as lures, turning the tables on rival gang members to gather information or to set up the rivals for an ambush. Some young women also sell drugs and participate in other criminal activities in support of the gang. Finally, others take care of the children of gang members and sometimes find steady work to assist in gaining a regular income (Eghigian & Kirby 2006).
In addition to taking on different roles within a gang, young women also take on different positions of power. For example,
… girls range from hardcore members to "groupies" looking for a good time and someplace to hang out. Law enforcement has documented their participation in all forms of violence, and today they are appearing in "girls only" gangs. These gangs form from direct recruits or from the ranks of dissatisfied former members of male gangs looking for more opportunity (Eghigian & Kirby 2006, p. 48).
It is important to note that to build and sustain a "girls only" gang, the power structure would have to be that of any other gang, with people in power calling the shots (i.e., ordering the commission of crimes like drug dealing, theft, and violent offenses). Within these gangs, there would also need to be young women with a lower power status who will commit the crimes as well as youth in the lowest position to keep lookout and recruit new members. What may be shocking is that the delinquent behaviors within the gangs - theft, intimidation, drug dealing, and violent offenses - will be similar regardless of a leader's gender. Indeed, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention violent crime arrest rates for girls aged 10 to 24 declined from 139.6 arrests per 100,000 in 1995, to 99.7 arrests per 100,000 in 2011. Arrest rates in general, however,...
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