Youth gangs are variously defined in the social science and criminal justice literature. They are commonly understood to be a loosely-organized association of socially excluded, alienated, or bigoted individuals acting together within a fluid structure with informal leadership. Youth gangs are bound by a common ethnicity, race, social class, or other determinant and employ distinctive symbols, including style and color of dress, hand signs, tattoos, and graffiti. Loyal gang members follow a gang-defined system of rules, rituals, and codes of behavior. Gangs serve some individuals as a substitute family structure. Membership imparts a sense of empowerment as members act together to defend territory and provide mutual protection. Youth gangs typically engage in delinquent, criminal, and violent activities, often for financial gain.
Gangs have been a part of U.S. culture since the early 19th century. Immigrant youth organized themselves into street gangs, often as a means of economic survival. Social scientists have been studying and reporting on gang membership and attributes since early in the 20th century. Gangs have been seen as a normal adolescent peer activity that occurs "within a continuum of behaviors, from conventional to wild," as suggested by the classic 1927 research of Frederic Thrasher, a social scientist who studied 1,313 Chicago gangs. A more recent view by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1998 holds that "a group must be involved in a pattern of criminal acts to be considered a youth gang." This criterion is also used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation who contend that it is "participation in criminal activity" that separates a community group or social club from a gang.
Gangs are more prevalent in neighborhoods where the community network is weak, with few ties among individual residents or between residents and conventional community institutions. Among adolescent males, the best predictor of gang membership is the absence of a positive male role model. Most girls who participate in gang activity have run away from home at least once due to family problems including the drug addiction and/or arrest of a parent.
Gang violence has reached a crisis level in the United States. A 1998 study revealed that gang members possess significantly more guns than other at-risk youth. The ready availability of such deadly weapons has led to an increase in violence such as drive-by shootings and a loss of life among gang members and others caught in the crossfire. Research reported in 1991 found that gang access to firearms "led to lethal violence in circumstances that might otherwise have been settled with less-than lethal means." Gang culture increasingly involves its youth membership in the use of weapons, drugs, and criminal activity.
According to Lonnie Jackson, author of the book Gangbusters: Strategies for Prevention and Intervention, many factors contribute to the likelihood of youth gang involvement. Some of the factors he cites include:
- frequent exposure to crime and violence during formative years
- few positive role models, particularly of their own ethnicity
- unstable family life, with little parental control
- lack of economic opportunities conducive to lawful self-sufficiency
- inadequate constructive social and recreational activities for youths
- hopelessness engendered by minimal employment opportunity
- inadequate skills, education, or employment qualifications
- lure of power and money, particularly through the drug trade
- cultural environment that highly values immediate gratification
- unmet needs for safety, a sense of belonging, and secure emotional relationships
- low self-esteem and feelings of insignificance and powerlessness
"Gang activity is notably prevalent in the biggest cities (over 100,000 population) in the United States," according to research reported by the National Youth Gang Center. Between 1996 and 2001, more than 90 percent of the largest U.S. cities reported gang activity. However, between 1998 and 1999, the research shows an increase in gang membership by 27 percent in suburban areas and by 29 percent in rural areas. Gang membership is no longer limited to ethnic minorities in America's inner cities, but is found in all ethnic groups, economic classes, and in rural, urban, and suburban settings.
Researchers studying gang life focused first on the behavior of male gangs. Later research, however, has revealed a growing number of girl gangs, with estimates as high as 10 percent of all youth gangs. However, the incidence of female gangs may be much higher than reports indicate. Female gang activity is less violent than that of their male counterparts and is underreported by law enforcement agencies.
Gang membership remains predominantly the province of male adolescents and young adults from 12 to 24 years of age. When young women become involved in gangs, it is usually through relationships with boyfriends or brothers, according to research by A. Campbell reviewed in the Journal of Criminal Justice. Girl gang members experience more long-term, harmful effects from gang membership than their male counterparts, and some research finds that "gang membership itself opened up young women to additional victimization risk."
The proportion of gang members of particular race or ethnicity reflects the demographics of the community where they live. "Nearly half (49 percent) of all gang members are Hispanic/Latino, 34 percent are African American/black, 10 percent are Caucasian/white, 6 percent are Asian, and the remainder are of some other race/ethnicity," according to respondents to the 2001 National Youth Gang Survey. The Survey estimated that "youth gangs were active in over 2,300 cities with populations over 2,500 in 2002."
Research studies throughout the 1980s and 1990s, during a period of growing gang involvement among North American youth, cite complex social problems as the root cause of the persistence and proliferation of youth gangs. Dysfunctional families, often with an absent father, low socio-economic circumstances, poor educational opportunities, unemployment, indigence, deteriorated neighborhoods with high crime rates, racism, and limited opportunities for bringing about a change in circumstances, are among the serious factors that put youth at high risk for gang involvement.
Though there is no conclusive evidence, many critics of popular media cite youth exposure to violent films and song lyrics, particularly rap music, as a negative influence glamorizing gang life and encouraging at-risk youth to join gangs or to participate in gang-related crime as a means of gaining a sense of belonging and empowerment.
When to intervene
Early intervention is the most effective means of diverting at-risk youth into pro-social activities and associations before they seek affiliation with youth gangs. Children as young as eight years old are attracted by the lure of gang membership. Parents, teachers, and concerned others should seek the help of culturally-sensitive and well-trained counselors who can intervene with information and alternatives that address unmet needs for safety, and provide a feeling of belonging, and a sense of power and purpose.
Concerned and attentive parents and school counselors should be on the alert for indications of possible
Effective treatment must be culturally sensitive, diverse, and experienced as relevant to the lives of the gang-involved youth. Treatment plans must address the myriad and serious underlying personal and social problems that lead to gang involvement. Young people need information about alternatives to street gangs that can realistically meet their needs in pro-social ways. Treatment for drug addiction, sexual abuse, and other physical and emotional traumas are a prerequisite to providing lasting help. Mental health treatment must address delayed stress issues from repeated exposure to trauma, violence, and economic hardship. Education and training in skills of nonviolent conflict resolution are also important components of a successful treatment plan. Counselors must be skilled, knowledgeable, and trustworthy and able to help the gang-involved youth to examine choices in ways that encourage clear thinking and provide a broader view of potential and possibilities outside gang life.
Early intervention with at-risk youth to relieve some of the personal and environmental stressors that lead to gang involvement has the best prognosis. Youth who have already joined a gang usually also have well-developed manipulative skills. They exhibit a fierce loyalty to other gang members and are highly resistant to change, even after arrest and detention for gang-related crimes.
Community intervention at the grassroots, neighborhood level, can be an effective first step in a multifaceted approach to prevention of gang involvement. Eliminating underlying social problems that lead to development of youth gangs and strengthening community ties can reduce the influence of gangs and deter gang crime that thrives when neighborhoods fail to work together. Parental involvement with teachers can head off many problems of truancy, and community education on gang culture will help parents and teachers to identify early signs of gang involvement. Strong after-school programs that assist working parents meet children's needs for supervision and provide structured, pro-social activities to young children may reduce attraction to gang-related activities. Former gang members who are willing to speak about the negative side of gang life, and adults who are willing to serve as mentors and tutors can provide critical positive role models for at-risk youth, an indispensable component to a successful prevention strategy. Job skills training and meaningful employment opportunities will divert many youth from the path to gang membership.
The prevalence of youth gangs throughout the United States, and the increase in violence associated with gang membership are serious issues of concern for any parent. Delinquent and antisocial behaviors in young children, particularly those who live in environments where poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction are common, are early danger signs. Seeking help from concerned and qualified school counselors, church, and community leaders can alleviate many parental concerns and provide opportunity for early intervention.
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