Youth Gangs and Violence

Although once thought to be an inner-city problem, gang violence has spread to communities throughout the United States. At last count, there were more than 24,500 different youth gangs around the country, and more than 772,500 teens and young adults were members of gangs.[1]

Teens join gangs for a variety of reasons. Some are seeking excitement; others are looking for prestige, protection, a chance to make money, or a sense of belonging.[2] Few teens are forced to join gangs; in most cases, teens can refuse to join without fear of retaliation.[3]

Membership on the Rise

There has been a dramatic increase in gang activity in the United States since the 1970s. In the 1970s, gangs were active in less than half the states, but now every state reports youth gang activity.[4] And, while many people think of gangs as just an inner-city problem, that is clearly no longer the case. In the past few decades we have seen a dramatic increase in the growth of gang problems in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas.[5]

Since 1996, the overall number of gangs and gang members in the United States has decreased. However, in cities with a population over 25,000, gang involvement still remains near peak levels.[6]

Age of Members

Most youth gang members are between the ages of 12 and 24, and the average age is about 17 to 18 years. Around half of youth gang members are 18 or older, and they are much more likely to be involved in serious and violent crimes than younger gang members. Only about 1-in-4 youth gang members are ages 15 to 17.[7]

For most teens, gang membership is a brief phase. Three studies that tracked teens over time found that one-half to two-thirds of youth gang members leave the gang by the one-year mark.[8],[9],[10]

Girls in Gangs

Male youth are much more likely to join gangs than female youth. It is hard to get a good estimate of the number of female gangs and gang members, however, because many police jurisdictions do not count girls as gang members. While the national estimates based on police reports indicate that only about 8% of gang members are female,[11] one 11-city survey of eighth-graders found that 38% of gang members are female.[12] Female gangs are somewhat more likely to be found in small cities and rural areas than in large cities, and female gang members tend to be younger, on average, than male gang members.[13]

Female gang members are involved in less delinquent or criminal activity than male gang members, and they commit fewer violent crimes.[14] However, female gang members are still an important concern. In one survey, 78% of female gang members reported being involved in gang fights, 65% reported carrying a weapon for protection, and 39% reported attacking someone with a weapon.[15]

Not Just an Inner-City Problem

Although many people think of gangs as a problem confined to the inner-city neighborhoods, that is clearly no longer the case. In the past few decades there has been a dramatic increase in the growth of gang problems in smaller cities, towns, and villages.[16] When surveyed in 1999, 66 percent of large cities, 47 percent of suburban counties, 27 percent of small cities, and 18 percent of rural counties reported active youth gangs.[17]

Gangs in suburban, small town, and rural areas are different than gangs in large cities. They include more females, white, and younger youth, and are more likely to have ethnically and racially mixed memberships.[18]

Gangs at School

Youth gangs are linked with serious crime problems in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. There is a strong relationship between the presence of gangs and both guns and drugs in school. Higher percentages of students report knowing a student who brought a gun to school when gangs are present at a school than when gangs are not present. In addition, a gang presence increases the likelihood of seeing a student with a gun at school. Students also report much higher drug availability when gangs are active at their school. Schools with gangs have nearly double the likelihood of violent victimization at school than those without a gang presence.[19] Teens that are gang members are much more likely than other teens to commit serious and violent crimes. For example, a survey in Denver found that while only 14% of teens were gang members, they were responsible for committing 89% of the serious violent crimes.[20]

References

  1. Howell, J.C. (1998). Youth Gangs: An Overview. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  2. Howell, J.C. (2000). Youth Gangs: Programs and Strategies. OJJDP Summary. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, p. 49.
  3. Egley, A. & Arjunan, M. (2002). Highlights of the 2000 National Youth Gang Survey. OJJDP Fact Sheet. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  4. Miller, W. B. (2001). The Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States: 197098. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, p. iii
  5. Miller, W. B. (2001). The Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States: 197098. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, p. x.
  6. Egley, A. (2002). National Youth Gang Survey Trends From 1996 to 2000. OJJDP Fact Sheet. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  7. Egley, A. (2000). Highlights of the 1999 National Youth Gang Survey. OJJDP Fact Sheet. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  8. Battin-Pearson, S., Guo, J., Hill, K.G., Abbot, R., Catalano, R.F., & Hawkins, J.D. (1997). Early predictors of sustained adolescent gang membership. Paper presented at the American Society of Criminology Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA. As cited in Ebensen, A. (2000). Preventing Adolescent Gang Involvement. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  9. Esbensen, F. & Huizinga, D. (1993). Gangs, drugs, and delinquency in a survey of urban youth. Criminology, 31, 565-589.
  10. Thornberry, T.P. (1998). Membership in youth gangs and involement in serious violent offending. In R. Loeber & D.P. Farrington (Eds.), Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders: Risk Factors and Successful Interventions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  11. National Youth Gang Center. 2000. 1998 National Youth Gang Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  12. Ebensen, F., and Osgood, D.W. (1997). National Evaluation of G.R.E.A.T. Research in Brief. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.
  13. National Youth Gang Center. 2000. 1998 National Youth Gang Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  14. Moore, J. & Hagerdorn, J. (2001). Female Gangs: A Focus on Research. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  15. Deschenes, E.P., and Esbensen, F. 1999. Violence in gangs: Gender differences in perceptions and behavior. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 15:6396.
  16. Miller, W. B. (2001). The Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States: 197098. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, p. x
  17. Egley, A. (2000). Highlights of the 1999 National Youth Gang Survey. OJJDP Fact Sheet. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  18. National Youth Gang Center. 2000. 1998 National Youth Gang Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  19. Howell, J.C. & Lynch, J. P. (2000). Gangs in Schools. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. National Youth Gang Survey Trends From 1996 to 2000. OJJDP Fact Sheet. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  20. Huizinga, D. 1997. The volume of crime by gang and nongang members. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, San Diego, DA. Cited in Howell, J.C. (1998). Youth Gangs: An Overview. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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