Although gangs have been a part of American life since the early eighteenth century, modern street gangs pose a greater threat to public safety and order than ever before. Many gangs originated as social clubs. In the early twentieth century, most street gangs were small groups who engaged in delinquent acts or minor crimes, such as fighting with other gangs. By the late twentieth century, however, they were frequently involved in violence, intimidation, and the illegal trafficking of drugs and weapons. An increasing number supported themselves by the sale of crack cocaine, heroin, and other illegal drugs, and had easy access to high-powered guns and rifles.
What Is a Gang?
A gang can be defined as a group of persons with a unique name and identifiable marks or symbols who claim a territory or turf, associate on a regular basis, and often engage in criminal or antisocial behavior. For gangs whose primary activities include violence and drugs, the FBI uses the term "violent street gang/drug enterprise." These gangs are, in fact, organized criminal conspiracies and can be prosecuted under the federal organized crime statutes. The National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) defines a "youth gang" as a group of youths, ages 10 to 22, who can be classified by local law enforcement agencies as a gang. Law enforcement officials prefer the term "street gang" because it includes both adults and juveniles and indicates where the majority of the gang's activities take place.
The Growth of Youth Gangs
According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, during the 1970s about 1 percent of all U.S. cities reported having youth gang problems. Cities reporting these problems were referred to as gang cities. By 2001, some 3,000 jurisdictions across the U.S. reported gang activities. The biggest growth in gang cities occurred during the 1980s and 1990s, when gangs increased in numbers by 281 percent. Between 1995 and 1998, gang activity was reported in some 1,550 cities and 450 counties where it had previously gone unreported. In 2001 youth gangs were active in 100 percent of cities with populations of 250,000 or more, 85 percent of cities with a population between 100,000 and 249,999, 65 percent of cities with a population between 50,000 and 99,999; 44 percent of cities with a population between 25,000 and 49,999, and 35 percent of suburban counties.
The National Youth Gang Survey
Since 1996, the National Youth Gang Center has conducted the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS), an annual survey of all police and sheriff's departments serving cities and counties with populations of 25,000 or greater. In addition, the NYGS surveys a random sampling of law enforcement agencies serving rural localities with populations between 2,500 and 25,000. Respondents are asked to report information about youth gangs in their jurisdiction, excluding motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology-based groups, prison gangs and adult gangs.
Over 24,000 gangs were active in the United States in 2001. Although this represents an overall decline of 5 percent from 1999 levels, 42 percent of cities with populations of over 25,000 reported an increase in the number of gang members. Ninety-five percent of cities reporting gang activity in 2001 also reported gang activity in previous survey years. Over 90 percent of gang members are male, although some youth gangs were reported to have female members. The racial and ethnic composition of gangs changed little over the period of 1996 to 2000, with survey respondents reporting that 47 percent of gang members were Hispanic, 31 percent were black, 13 percent were white, and 7 percent were Asian.
GANGS AND VIOLENT CRIME.
At least one gang-related homicide from 1999 to 2000 was reported in 91 percent of
cities with populations over 250,000, 64 percent of cities with populations between 100,000 and 200,000, 55 percent of cities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000, and 32 percent of cities with between 25,000 and 50,000 residents. Los Angeles and Chicago accounted for a total of 698 gang-related murders in 2001. This number is more than the total of 637 gang-related murders reported in 130 other cities with a population of 100,000 or more. Fifty-nine percent of all Los Angeles murders and 53 percent of all Chicago murders are gang-related.
Types of Gangs and Activities
The 1995 National Assessment of Gangs study asked prosecutors to indicate the types of gangs operating within their jurisdiction. The study also asked whether or not members of those gangs were involved in drugs or in committing violent crimes. For gangs identified as drug traffickers, the study asked what types of drugs were involved.
Among respondents reporting gang problems, most jurisdictions reported the presence of local black gangs. These gangs originated in that jurisdiction, rather than migrating from California (Crips or Bloods). The second most-prevalent gang types in large jurisdictions were Hispanic gangs, followed closely by motorcycle gangs.
In large jurisdictions 50 percent of prosecutors reported the presence of Crips and Bloods, with 90 percent involved in violent crimes and 92 percent involved in drug trafficking. The survey data did not reveal whether local Crips and Bloods had any continuing connection with the Los Angeles gangs. Studies indicate that the names and colors often persist long after dropping any real Los Angeles connection. Caribbean-based gangs were virtually always reportedly involved in drug trafficking. These gangs dealt mainly in cocaine (more than 96 percent).
Asian gangs were more frequently reported to be involved in violent crimes than in drug trafficking. Prosecutors reported the presence of Asian gangs in 52 percent of large jurisdictions but in only 14 percent of small jurisdictions.
Since the early 1990s youth gangs have begun to appear in Native American communities. The National Youth Gang Center published the 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country in 2000. The survey defined an Indian community as being composed of American Indian, Alaska Native, or Aleut persons who live within an Indian reservation, pueblo, rancheria, or village and who comprise a federally recognized tribe or community. Some 300 federally recognized tribal communities participated in the survey. Twenty-three percent of Indian communities reported youth gang activity during 2000. Most reported that their youth gang problem first began in the early 1990s. The survey showed that 80 percent of gang members were male. Seventy-eight percent were either American Indian, Alaska Native, or Aleut, with Hispanic/Latinos making up 12 percent, Caucasians 7 percent, and blacks and Asians at 2 percent each. Among the most common offenses committed by Indian country gangs were graffiti (47 percent), vandalism (40 percent), drug sales (22 percent), and aggravated assault (15 percent).
According to the 2001 National Youth Gang Survey 63 percent of gang-problem jurisdictions reported that gang members returning from confinement contributed to an increase in violent crime, while 68 percent reported that they contributed to an increase in drug-trafficking. One-third of the jurisdictions reported that there were no community programs available to assist gang members returning from confinement, while 35 percent could not provide information regarding such programs.
Two Studies of Big City Gangs
Two 1995 studies, one funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and one by the OJJDP, interviewed 50 gang members in each of four communities: Aurora, Colorado; Denver, Colorado; Broward County, Florida; and Cleveland, Ohio. As a control group, 50 youths in each area from the at-risk population who were not gang members were also interviewed. The results of the one-time, confidential interviews showed that gang members were significantly more involved in crime than nonmembers.
According to Dr. C. Ronald Huff (Ohio State University), the principal investigator in the NIJ study, 58 percent of the Colorado and Florida gang members and 45 percent of the Cleveland gang members said they had personally stolen cars. In comparison, control group youths reported much lower car thefts (Colorado and Florida, 12.5 percent; Cleveland, 4 percent). Forty percent of the Cleveland gang members reported participating in a drive-by shooting, compared to only 2 percent of the control group. About 64 percent of the Colorado and Florida gang members stated that members of their gangs had committed homicide, while only 6.5 percent of nonmembers said that their friends had killed someone.
Gang members were also much more likely than non-members to own guns. More than 90 percent of gang members in the study communities reported that their peers had carried concealed weapons; more than 80 percent stated that members had taken guns to school. Of the control groups, about half said friends had carried a concealed weapon, and one-third reported friends had taken guns to school.
Gang members were more involved than at-risk non-members in drug trafficking. More than 70 percent of gang members reported selling drugs, while only 6 to 9 percent of youths in the control groups said they had sold drugs.
In "Early Precursors of Gang Membership: A Study of Seattle Youth" (Juvenile Justice Bulletin, Office of
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, December 2001), Karl G. Hill, Christina Lui, and J. David Hawkins reported on the results of a study in Seattle, Washington, in which fifth-graders were tracked through the age of 18. Of 808 study participants, 124 joined a gang between the ages of 13 and 18. About 69 percent of those belonged to a gang for less than one year, and less than 1 percent of study participants who joined a gang at age 13 were still in a gang at 18 years of age.
According the report, study participants who remained in the gang for several years "were the most behaviorally and socially maladjusted children," often exhibiting "early signs of violent externalizing such as aggression and hyperactivity." Also, study participants who associated with antisocial peers were more than twice as likely to remain in a gang for more than one year. Among the risk factors identified as contributing to gang involvement were learning disabilities, availability of marijuana, low academic achievement, other neighborhood youth in trouble, and youths living with one parent along with other unrelated adults.