Gangs and Violence

Gang members, a relatively small proportion of the adolescent population, commit the majority of serious youth violence (see Spergel, 1990, for a review). In two major longitudinal studies in Denver and Rochester (discussed in more detail in Chapter 3), 14 to 30 percent of the youths surveyed were gang members at some time during the study, and they accounted for 68 to 79 percent of the serious violence reported (Thornberry, 1998). Similar findings have been reported in other studies using nonrandomized local samples (Battin et al., 1996; Fagan, 1990). In Rochester, 66 percent of chronic violent offenders were in gangs (Huizinga et al., 1995).

A high proportion of gang members are also involved in drug sales and possessing/carrying a gun, two behaviors closely linked to serious violence. The 1999 National Youth Gang Survey (a national survey of law enforcement agencies) estimates that 46 percent of youth gang members are involved in street drug sales (Egley, 2000). In the Rochester study, 67 percent of youths reporting they owned/carried a gun for protection were gang members and 32 percent reported they sold drugs. Only 3 to 7 percent of non-gun owners or sport gun owners were involved in drug selling. Further, 85 percent of youths who owned guns for protection were involved with peers who owned guns for protection (Huizinga et al., 1995).

Rates of violence are higher in schools where gangs are present. The rate of victimization in schools with gangs is 7.5 percent, compared to 2.7 percent in schools without gangs (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). Gangs are present not only in inner-city schools, but in many suburban and rural schools as well. Between 1989 and 1995, the proportion of students reporting gangs at their school increased from 15 percent to 28 percent (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). By 1999, however, that figure had dropped to 17 percent (Kaufman et al., 2000). A decline in the number of gangs in U.S. schools between 1996 and 1997 has also been reported by law enforcement agencies (National Youth Gang Center, 1999).

The National Youth Gang Survey reported more than 26,000 active youth gangs in schools and communities in 1999, down 15 percent from 1996 (Egley, 2000). Yet the same survey reported more than 840,500 active gang members in 1999, a decline of less than 1 percent from the peak level in 1996. Thus, from this source, it appears that the number of youths actively involved in gangs remains very high.

The racial/ethnic composition of gangs in 1999 was 47 percent Hispanic, 31 percent African American, 13 percent non-Hispanic white, and 7 percent Asian. These rates have been relatively constant since 1990.

In 1998, 92 percent of all gang members were male (National Youth Gang Center, 2000), although some evidence indicated that girls' involvement in gangs increased during the epidemic (Chesney-Lind et al., 1996; Chesney-Lind & Brown, 1999; Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). However, the National Youth Gang Survey reports a decline in female membership, with less than 2 percent of gangs nationwide reporting predominantly female membership.


  • The MTF prevalence estimates for both violent behavior and drug use have been confirmed by other studies in which there is overlap in years and ages. For example, see Elliott et al. (1989) and Menard and Elliott (1993).
  • About 16,000 high school seniors at 130 schools participate, although only about 3,000 of the students are asked questions about their violent behavior. Since the beginning of the survey in 1975, the participation rate among schools has ranged from 60 to 80 percent, and the student response rate has ranged from 77 to 86 percent (Kaufman et al., 1998).
  • The prevalence rates for assault with injury and robbery are not additive.
  • The rates for both the National Youth Survey and the city surveys were calculated by the senior scientific editor of this report (Elliott, 2000b) from gender-specific data in Elliott et al. (1998) and Huizinga et al. (1995).
  • Calculations by Elliott, senior scientific editor, from Snyder (unpublished).
  • The 1998 arrest rate was atypically high for the 1993-1999 period. This rate was twice the rate for every other year over this period and appears to be an anomaly.
  • Figure includes 63 homicides and 12 suicides.

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