Gangs have become a fact of life in both large and small cities across the United States. Research indicates that youth who choose to become members of a gang tend to participate in more delinquent activities than their counterparts who do not join gangs. But in order to connect youth gangs to delinquent activity, the term gangs must be accurately defined and gang membership correctly identified. Only then can society begin to prevent or at least intervene in youth involvement in gangs. When prevention and intervention methods fail, policing and prosecuting juvenile gang members become necessary. All of these efforts to try and curtail juvenile gang activity—defining, identifying, preventing, intervening, policing, and prosecuting—can involve ethical issues or situations that will need to be addressed.
Defining Juvenile Gangs
Establishing a standard definition for a gang is an important part of the process of identifying, studying, and prosecuting juvenile gangs. Currently, there is no universal definition for a youth gang. This lack of a standard, operationalized definition can greatly impact gang research, investigations, policies, and laws. The inability to adequately define youth gangs can sometimes result in either underestimating juvenile gangs through the use of too narrow a definition (resulting in potentially missed opportunities for prevention and intervention) or overestimating youth gang problems through too broad a definition (leading to a wider net that captures potentially innocent youth). To complicate matters even more, one popular method for defining gangs has been to let the youth gangs self-identify as a gang, thereby allowing their claims to define them as a juvenile gang or gang member.
Fortunately, most of the workable definitions of juvenile gangs that are in use across various jurisdictions take into consideration such factors as the age status of the youth involved, how many individuals are part of the group, whether or not the group has been formally recognized as a distinct entity (usually with a name), and the extent to which the group has been involved in illegal activities recognized by local law enforcement. All of these factors can contribute to formulating a viable definition for juvenile gangs and thus becomes the first step in identifying these groups.
Identifying Juvenile Gangs
Identifying youth gangs and their membership can also be problematic at times. The first known “street” gangs in the United States originated on the east coast in the late 1700s. The more serious city gangs did not appear on the American scene until the early 19th century.
In more modern times, youth gangs have played an emerging and significant role in city culture. Juvenile gangs began receiving more public attention in the 1980s and 1990s as they started to spread from their traditional inner-city turf to the surrounding noncentral city areas. It is this extended presence coupled with the increase in community gang problems represented by violence and criminal activity that fostered an increase in fear among citizens and a growing focused attention by law enforcement agencies. It is also this association with the urban, poverty-stricken, and disproportionately racial/ethnic minority underclass in these primarily city-base settings that can lead to the potential stereotyping of young, poor, minority, and urban youth by identifying them, prematurely and incorrectly in some cases, as dangerous youth gang members.
More recently formed gangs in the United States may not conform to the stereotypical image of a juvenile gang. In less populated areas outside the urban realm, it becomes more difficult to assess the seriousness and dangerousness of what might be considered youth gangs. Depending on how the jurisdiction defines gangs, a group of young people may be showing early signs of gang-like activity, but may not be heavily involved in criminal activity during these early stages. And while some initial gang suppression efforts may be needed in these cases, communities and organizations may have to guard against stereotyping young people as gang members.
Additionally, some researchers have noted that the traits and activities of these early-stage gangs can be misrepresented by the youths themselves, with some juvenile gangs creating the impression that their group is more threateningly dangerous than it really is. This is done as a survival tactic and a means of providing protection for the gang by defensively preempting any strikes against it from other youth gangs or groups. Likewise, local media can play a role in highlighting youth gang activity that may not be as serious or dangerous as the media portrays. The media may not clearly and accurately discern the type of gang that is the subject of the news item. As well, the violent activities and the movement to new locations of some youth gangs can be exaggerated by local media, leading to the perception that there is widespread violence, a lessening of moral values, and greater reason for the public to be fearful. In sum, the risk of stereotyping communities, groups, and youth is much greater when there are difficulties identifying youth gangs and gang members and problems separating the facts from the myths.
Prevention and Intervention of Juvenile Gangs
Prevention and intervention efforts toward youth gangs can be found in a number of different areas, but perhaps particularly in community-based programs. Community-based prevention and intervention programs work with youth who are gang members or potential gang members. Other programs may include health clinics, educational programs, or youth neighborhood recreational or leadership programs. Regardless of the type of community program, the relationship between the program staff and the youth is based in trust and the sharing of information that can include illegal and criminal activities. Local law enforcement may ask program staff what they know about the gang-related youth, and the program staff may feel obligated to share information with law enforcement. Thus, expectations surrounding the confidentiality of verbal and written communications and obligations to provide information to law enforcement authorities can pose ethical problems for program staff whenever they come in contact with gang members.
Schools also can play a role in bringing attention to the problems of youth gangs and helping prevent or intervene in juvenile gang activities. However, school staff and teachers can miss the signs of gang activity or may even mistakenly assign gang membership to groups of youth who are not affiliated with formal gangs. Even when schools do correctly identify youth gangs and gang members, they may be reluctant to come forward with that information because the school may feel it has failed in one of its primary roles, which is to foster a safe and positive school/learning environment. Similarly, parents may be reluctant to send their children to schools with noted gang problems, and the schools could face losing students as well as funding for educational dollars. Yet, most schools would have an ethical and legal responsibility to share information with key law enforcement or probation agencies about gangs and gang members in order to help prevent further gang activity. As a result, many schools may find themselves trying to balance the ethical responsibility to prevent and intervene in school-based gang membership, to provide a safe and positive learning environment for youth, and the need to preserve the school’s reputation, student population, and educational funding streams.
Policing and Prosecuting Juvenile Gangs
Identifying youth gangs is important for many reasons. It provides an opportunity for police to track, investigate, and arrest gang members involved in criminal activity, which then allows prosecutors to file and possibly prove charges against such gang members. In many jurisdictions the gang membership itself can enhance the investigation, prosecution, and sentencing efforts.
At the federal level, crimes committed by individuals identified as gang members can increase the penalty for their crimes through federal statutes, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statutes, and even some conspiracy statutes. As well, an increasing number of state laws are also allowing for stronger prosecution and sentencing of gang-related crimes. Yet, it remains somewhat difficult to identify some gang members and to directly connect them with criminal activity. Consequently, it becomes difficult, then, to secure a gang-enhanced prosecution.
All of these efforts to try and curtail juvenile gang activity—defining, identifying, preventing, intervening, policing, and prosecuting—can involve ethical issues or situations that will need to be addressed.
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