Juvenile Crime and Victimization - Youth Gangs
cities modern reported street
The modern street gang takes many forms. Individual members, gang cliques, or entire gang organizations may traffic in drugs; operate car theft rings; commit shootings, assaults, robbery, extortion, and other felonies; and terrorize neighborhoods. The most ambitious gangs spread out from their home jurisdictions to other cities and states. Many are supported by the sale of crack cocaine, heroin, and other illegal drugs, and they often have relatively easy access to high-powered guns and rifles. Furthermore, in many impoverished and transitional neighborhoods, children are born into or must contend with second- and third-generation street gangs.
Attempts to collect data about gangs at the national level have been complicated by the fact that definitions differ as to what constitutes a gang. The 1998 National Youth Gang Survey asked law enforcement officials about the characteristics they consider important in defining a youth gang. The characteristics most often named were that a gang:
- Commits crimes together.
- Has a name.
- Hangs out together.
- Claims a turf or territory of some sort.
- Displays/wears common colors or other insignia.
- Has a leader or several leaders.
In the 2002 National Youth Gang Survey, a gang was defined as "a group of youths or young adults 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.'" The survey respondents (law enforcement agents) were instructed to exclude motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, and exclusively adult gangs.
Young Juveniles in Gangs
Gangs sometimes serve as families for children whose own families are dysfunctional. Gang members have said there is often little need to intimidate youngsters in order to recruit them because they know what children need and are willing to provide it in return for their commitment. Gangs provide emotional support, shelter, and clothing—in essence, just what the child's family may not be providing. However, some children are intimidated into joining gangs either out of fear or for protection from other gangs.
A Pervasive Problem
According to the OJJDP, only nineteen states reported gang problems in the 1970s, but by the late 1990s youth gangs were reported in all fifty states and the District of Columbia (The Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States: 1970–98, April 2001). By 1998, 3,700 localities—including about 2,550 cities, towns, and villages, and 1,150 counties—had reported gang problems. Between the mid-1990s and 2002, however, there was a steady decline in reported gang problems, particularly in suburban counties and small cities. (See Figure 8.8.)
Traditionally, gangs were big-city problems. It is still true that the larger the population of a city the greater the likelihood that gangs operate in that city. But gangs have spread to small towns, villages, and rural areas that often do not have their own police departments. In 2002 there were active youth gangs in all of the nation's largest cities, 87% of mid-size cities (with populations between 100,000 and 249,000), 38% percent of suburban counties, 27% of small cities (population below 25,000), and 12% of rural counties. The OJJDP estimated that 21,500 gangs were operating in the United States in 2002, with 731,500 members.
Portrait of the Modern Youth Gang
The authors of "Hybrid and Other Modern Gangs" examined survey data and the latest research to offer a portrait of the modern youth gang. The stereotypical view holds that youth gangs are tightly organized groups comprised of African-American or Hispanic inner-city males operating under strict codes of conduct with explicit punishments for infractions of the rules. The new "hybrid" gangs may have as members people of both genders, from different racial groups, espousing radically opposing viewpoints; for example, the authors note, a modern gang might be made up of African-Americans, white supremacists, and girls. The gangs are found in schools and the military and in territories as small as shopping malls. Rules or codes of conduct may be unclear. Hybrid gangs sometimes borrow the symbols, graffiti, and even the names of established Los Angeles- or Chicago-based organizations (Bloods and Crips, Black Gangster Disciples, or Vice Lords, for example) but are actually locally based and have no connection to those organizations. Rival gangs may cooperate in criminal activity and mergers of small gangs are common.
The 1998 National Youth Gang Survey reported that an estimated 36% of youth gangs had members from two or more racial or ethnic groups, and that small cities, particularly in the Midwest, had the largest proportion of gangs with mixed race/ethnicity. Other studies show that in most cases the modern adolescent may refuse to join a gang without fear of reprisal, even though gangs try to maintain the illusion that leaving is impossible. OJJDP-supported longitudinal studies in Denver, Colorado (1988–99), Rochester, New York (1986–97), and the Seattle Social Development Project in Seattle (1985–2001) showed that well over half (54–69%) of youths who joined gangs in those cities remained for one year or less, while only 9–21% stayed for three or more years.
According to "Hybrid and Other Modern Gangs," in places where gangs are a fairly recent phenomenon, drug sales and distribution are less likely to be major problems. Gang member involvement in drug sales is most prevalent in areas where gangs emerged between 1981 and 1985, at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. Highly organized, entrepreneurial, gang control of drug distribution across wide areas—and the violent crime that goes with it—are associated with the gangs that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Court Rulings on Gang Loitering
In order to combat the rise in violent and drug-related crime, which was attributed to a rise in criminal street gang activity, the city of Chicago enacted a Gang Congregation Ordinance in 1992. The ordinance prohibited "criminal street gang members from loitering with one another or with other persons in any public place," regardless of whether the others were fellow gang members. Police officers were required to order any group of people standing around "with no apparent purpose" to move along if the officers believed at least one of them belonged to a street gang. The ordinance had considerable support in the high-crime neighborhoods in which it was implemented. During the three years the law was in effect, more than 42,000 people were arrested for refusing to obey police orders to move along. The ordinance was struck down in 2001 when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with a lower court that it was unconstitutionally vague and encompassed a great deal of harmless behavior (Chicago v. Morales [No. 97–1121]).